Accelerating business innovation: Don't let networks get in the way

Put the network at the heart of your business model. Make it automated, programmable and able to respond to needs in real time.

Go from slow to fast: Don't let networks get in the way
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Nothing slows down a project more than waiting for the IT and network teams to get it deployed. Right? What most of us want is for the network to just get out of our way so we can make progress on the things that really matter. Networks don’t matter. Customers matter. Revenue matters. Competitive advantage matters.

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In previous blog posts, I’ve made the case that networks are a strategic element for rapid innovation and the critical foundation for a competitive digital business. But aren’t networks just plumbing? Aren’t they just the dumb connections between machines that only need to be fast, cheap and invisible? Don’t we already have networks that are good enough? After all, Google, Amazon and Pokémon Go all seem to work just fine, right? We certainly don’t want to invest more in our networks. In fact, we want to invest less.

While it may seem like a contradiction, the best way to get the network out of the way of your business is to put it at the very heart of your business model. Modernize it so it to is automated, programmable and able to respond to the needs of the business in real time. Move from your legacy IP architecture to a new IP architecture that makes the network invisible by making it fast, making it easy to use, and making it the platform from which you can create and deploy new services and revenue models and better customer experiences. You’ll spend much less on this modern network than you do on maintaining your slow and expensive old network.

Don’t cross the streams

The truth is old IP networks are just plumbing. And for most companies they are made up of legacy systems and complexity that has been built up over years, layer upon layer—like the sludge in the bottom of old pipes that slows things down and causes congestion.

These old models rely on vendor-proprietary black boxes in which only a few individuals, schooled in the black art of CLI incantations and arcane network magic, know enough to make them work and keep them running. The scariest thing you can do is change something for fear of breaking everything and not being able to get it working again. Change in this environment is bad—like crossing the streams bad.

But change is essential. Rapid change—as in continual innovation and fast delivery of customer value—is at the heart of the modern business model. It’s what separates the haves and the have-nots.

How to get the network out of the way of the business

There’s a five-step model to get to an innovation-centric, network-powered future:

  1. It all starts with a transformational tipping point where you determine your network priorities and plan an appropriate response.
  2. Most companies then move to automation and optimizing the network for applications and the cloud.
  3. Then they add agility in the form of virtual network functions (VNF) and software-defined networking (SDN) controllers.
  4. Intelligence is layered on next through machine learning and analytics.
  5. A DevOps model delivers rapid and systemic innovation at scale.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way

You can’t build a business requiring rapid innovation on an old IP network architecture. Old IP networks are anchors that slow down business and put a speed limit on innovation. They are complex and built with layer upon layer of upgrades, often stretching back a decade or two. There is no real concept for automating business processes—you’re lucky to automate a network process or two. As a result, almost everything is done manually, and it’s prone to human error.

The people who put these networks in place have often retired or moved on to another company or position. Few people really understand how the network works, and fewer still are willing to touch or change anything for fear that everything will come crashing down. I’m not sure if the best analogy is bubble gum and bailing wire or crumbling bridges and roads, but whichever metaphor you prefer, the point is that our businesses are built on top of an unreliable foundation.

As one CIO told me, “It wasn’t supposed to be this way.”

What can you do?

This is where the promise of new IP architectures may help. New IP networks use off-the-shelf silicon, hardware and software, leveraging open-source software and open interfaces, so you aren’t locked into a single vendor and paying more than you should over time.

These networks are built using small hardware and software elements that can be combined together by you to create services on the fly. This means new IP networks are decomposable, delivering a level of flexibility and programmability otherwise unattainable. They’re designed to give you more control over the network, the individual functions and services, and ultimately the innovations and applications you can build on top of the network to power your business.

These networks make it easy to automate both network and business processes, programming the network to respond to the business and doing so in machine time. In other words, you gain most of the network advantages of hyperscale companies like Google and Amazon, and you don’t have to wait on a vendor to do it all for you.  

You gain back control to build a network on your terms. But even more important, the network goes from being an impediment to the business to being an accelerator of business innovation. Is it dumb or smart at this point? Who cares? It’s automated, it’s programmable, and it all but disappears behind business processes that are geared to rapidly serve the needs of customers and adjust to new opportunities on the fly. That’s a win for everyone.

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