Is your network a platform for business innovation and growth?

Our networks are built for the old world. This new world needs a new network.

Is your network a platform for business innovation and growth?

The whole point of a network is just to connect stuff, right? Connect people to people, people to machines, and machines to machines. It’s pipes and plumbing, a necessary part of the business infrastructure and, hopefully, one that costs less and less over time. After all, it’s a cost center not a growth engine. At least, that’s the way it’s treated by most businesses these days.

Most, but not all.

+ Also on Network World: Accelerating business innovation: Don't let networks get in the way +

In each industry there are a few companies that think differently about the network because they think differently about their business. For these companies, the network is an asset to exploit, not just depreciate. It’s a strategic platform for the business, not just a necessary expense like electricity. It’s a growth engine and a platform for business innovation upon which they deliver amazing new services and create enormous new value.

Say what?

How can a network fuel business innovation and growth? We really just want the network to fade into the background, despite that it’s the source of connectivity to virtually everything the business does. To understand how this dichotomy can be true, and understand how and why the network should be treated as a strategic asset and revenue growth center, we need to unpack two truths:

  1. Customer connection and co-creation are at the heart of modern business models.
  2. Rapid delivery of products and services is necessary to support business objectives in a modern business model.

The modern business model

We used to make stuff and sell it to people, exchanging money (or chickens) in the process, and then be done, until that same person needed that same stuff again. This is changing, and fast. Even if you make stuff, two things are probably happening in your industry. If not, they’ll happen soon.

  1. The things you make are getting smarter and are able to talk to you, or each other, or other things, or all of the above.
  2. What you build into your product is only part of its ultimate value. Your customers are helping to build its value, too. Maybe they’re rating your product for other customers. Maybe they’re giving your other customers advice on how to use or fix your product. Or maybe your customers are your product (think Facebook, Twitter and Airbnb).

Don’t believe me? Look around—really look—at the products and services you use the most. How do you buy things online (Amazon, reading the customer reviews)? How do you hop a ride across town (Uber, checking the driver’s rating)? How do you book a restaurant (Yelp or OpenTable, again with the reviews)? How do you keep up with friends and family (Facebook or Instagram)? You get the idea. But you knew this already: The world is going digital. It’s pervasive in your personal life, and it’s coming to your company, too, ready or not. In the digital world, customers help create value—sometimes awesome value—not just companies.

But here’s the conundrum: We live in a new world—where networks that enable co-creation and rapid product delivery are a must—but our networks are built for the old world—where we just build stuff and sell it to people. This new world needs a new network.

A new network?

Here’s where the second part comes into play. If you’re a digital business, you need to be able to change things fast. Amazon makes a change to its production environment every 11 seconds on average. How well do you think your network, or the average business network, would do in this type of dynamic environment?

Modern networks are built for continual micro-changes and have automated a high percentage of the “work” needed to produce the change. This means automating workflows and processes, from mundane network-level provisioning and configuration work to sophisticated interoperation with the storage layer, applications, security and even the user.

Imagine each and every process is the smallest possible version of itself. It stands alone and can be mixed and matched with other processes to create work streams. Imagine the same for each function in a network or the broader IT infrastructure. For example, routing isn’t a function, rather each and every step that a router does is a standalone function, like DNS look up, or route selection.

Now you have the ingredients to do everything that needs doing; all you need are the recipes. If we can develop and then automate the recipes, meaning the work flows, then we can automate a high percentage of all the work that needs doing. We can put it into a self-service portal so it’s easy for anyone, or anything, to access and use. A policy engine can be used to ensure that the recipes follow appropriate guidelines and keep the company and its employees in compliance with policy and law.

With this environment, a business can rapidly create new services, products and offerings. The underlying digital infrastructure can respond in real time using automated systems. This is what we mean by making the network into a platform for business innovation. People’s time and talent can be focused on creating value for customers, on creating platforms and environments in which customers can create value for themselves and each other, and where partners can do the same. The result is not simply that the network gets out of the way, but that it accelerates and enhances the ability of the business to innovate and drive new revenue.

How far out is this network utopia?

Ingredients, recipes and automated processing? For some people, this sounds like Blue Apron and something that could be achieved today with a bit of planning. For others, it sounds like Star Trek—like getting my meal from a replicator. It’s a bit of both, actually.

Getting started isn’t all that hard. As William Gibson once said, “The future is already here—it’s just not evenly distributed." The technologies to do this exist today, and the move to more software-oriented systems will only accelerate the time to value. Google, Facebook, Amazon and other companies do all of this now, and they get huge competitive advantage in time and cost as a result. You can absolutely start down the same path today. Your most significant hurdles will be culture, skills and current processes, which have to be re-evaluated and re-aligned in concert with the goal of innovating at the speed of modern business.

It isn’t necessary to change everything all at once. Most companies begin by automating the physical infrastructure—moving from switches and routers to fabrics, automating network workflows, and implementing basic policy engines. Then they graduate to more advanced capabilities that add agility, such as software-based controllers and software-defined networks (SDN), replacing physical elements with software using virtual network functions (VNF). And eventually they add intelligence in the form of machine learning and advanced analytics.

As you do this, not only do you raise the strategic value of your infrastructure team, but you raise the business value of your infrastructure. It advances from being primarily about connectivity to being primarily about revenue and innovation. It becomes a growth engine for your business, and the network becomes a platform for innovation.

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