Why your network needs the power of a platform

There's a saying in the tech industry that it over-promises what will happen in three years, and surprises you with what will happen in five. This is certainly true when it comes to the evolution of the network as a platform. Regardless of your starting point, it's time to start getting soft around the edges.

connected nodes network

Evolving your network to have the characteristics of a platform is a core requirement of the Pervasive Network. The goal is to have a network that delivers greater value by reducing operational costs, while allowing for the rapid addition of new functionality and services to consumers, wholesale players or Industry X.0 – the emerging modern enterprise defined by cyber-physical production systems that combine communications, IT, data and physical elements. It is the enabler of many of the new technologies – 5G, VR and IoT – that are driving massive industry disruption and bringing new consumer services and industry solutions to market. To achieve this the network needs to adopt the characteristics of a successful software platform such as Google, Amazon or Facebook:

  • Easy to collaborate with and plug-in
  • Flexible and agile (software-based)
  • Scalable and secure with low administrative overhead
  • Offering high value to attract ecosystem participants

These platform attributes can only be realized if the network evolves from a hardware-based architecture to a software-defined model with much of functionality virtualized. The scale of this challenge varies greatly depending on the scope, complexity and age of the network and your business and operating model. Net new companies will have modern, software-defined networks with virtualized functionality; companies with IT systems that are 20, 30 or 40 years old have a more daunting challenge. The state of your network determines your starting point, but your end point needs to be determined based on your business and operating model and your available capital and human assets. Keep in mind, there is no real end in this transition – your network functionality, like a platform, needs to be engineered to easily improve, manage and add features and functions as the market demands.

The opportunity is significant, and the downside could be obsolescence, so make sure you do your homework for a successful transition:

  • Develop a plan that incorporates the needs of the business and customer base
  • Undergo a comprehensive assessment of your current network infrastructure
  • Determine a business and operating model that assures you can function profitably as you add new capabilities
  • Do a skills assessment to determine the need for training and talent

Easy to plug in

Your network platform needs to be easy for others to plug into. You need to plan for today and the future, keeping in mind where API layers are headed and what are the emerging technologies for platform interaction and compatibility. Finding a standard model for your API layer reduces the barrier to entry for potential partners and participants.

Flexible and agile (software-based)

The edges of the network present the opportunity to integrate processes to reduce maintenance and improve scalability and reliability while lowering your operating costs. More importantly the edge is where you will develop the services that will make your offerings more competitive, improve customer satisfaction and by offering new services, generate net new revenue streams. This is where the opportunity to differentiate your brand and offering lies as well as increasing profitability.

New functionality and revenue

Today, many of the consumer services are delivered over the top of the network via internet services such as entertainment, home services like security and energy management. The end points in the home are for the most part very limited in terms of customization. This is already beginning to change with vendors offering consumers the ability to block IP addresses or put time limits on Wi-Fi access. As the network evolves to be an agile programmable software platform, these services will be integrated into the network and provide overall richer services with far greater control at the consumer end, allow for rapid improvement and innovation by the provider and assure a two-way relationship with the customer, providing invaluable insights into usage and preferences.

Moving to a model that is software based presents the opportunity for your network to become more agile, scalable, secure and responsive to the customer needs, but adding agile programming and DevOps best practices are the skills needed to capitalize on this opportunity. These skills are not typically found in the resume of a legacy network system administrator, but rather a software programmer who has been working in a modern digital framework. You need to determine your needs and look at the options of training, hiring or acquiring, or all three, to assure you have the skills resident to maximize the benefit of a flexible, programmable network platform.

Scalable and secure

This is not limited to the consumer market. SDWANs are emerging that will allow enterprises similar benefits in reducing operational overhead and adding functionality for the user and insights into their needs. Considering the ever-growing data deluge and the race to harvest and manage data for competitive insights, the evolution of the network is as relevant in enterprise as in the home. In addition, operators need to contend with the issue of data security and privacy. The functionality that can be programmed into the network layer could prove invaluable in this ongoing race.

Build an ecosystem

One provider cannot and will not do it all. The power of the ecosystems that evolve around platforms is indisputable. Developing a platform that allows ease of integration of functionality and provides value to third-party ecosystem participants are requirements. The communications industry is the best example of this. Partnering, innovating and acquiring are all strategies to remain competitive against the global digital platforms and the network platform is the foundation for building this value for your customers and shareholders.

Get started and have a plan

The move to software defined and virtualized network functionality is inevitable, but it will be gradual. The technology, let alone the expertise, is lagging the potential. Large, legacy networks are highly complex and security concerns are paramount. It will be some time before we see networks that are wholly designed as software platforms. There is a saying in the tech industry that it over promises what will happen in three years, and surprises you with what will happen in five. I think this is true of the evolution of the network as a platform. Regardless of your starting point, it is safe to say, it is time to start getting soft around the edges.

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Copyright © 2017 IDG Communications, Inc.

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