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Simple networks

Simple networks
November 9, 2011in Opinion2011-11-092013-02-11opinionen
Enterprises today are faced with a perplexing choice of network topologies that create complexity and make it difficult to solve simple problems. Matt Kantecki, Group Head of Networking at global financial services giant HSBC, says that this should no longer be necessary now that network...
“enterprises should consider a carefully controlled choice of simple, standardized network infrastructure.”
Matt Kantecki
Group Head of Networking at HSBC

Enterprises today are faced with a perplexing choice of network topologies that create complexity and make it difficult to solve simple problems. Matt Kantecki, Group Head of Networking at global financial services giant HSBC, says that this should no longer be necessary now that network technology has reached a stable plateau of maturity. Instead, enterprises should consider a carefully controlled choice of simple, standardized network infrastructure.

As the Group Head of Networking of a very large multinational company, I sit on the advisory boards of several different service providers. This gives me insight into the many different issues that my peers are having with networks and IT. Although many of the problems are similar across all companies, when diving deeper into the issue, I find that the solutions are often different because we all use different network topologies and infrastructure.

I believe that this plethora of network architecture and design is avoidable, and its existence causes complexity. In the financial services industry, for example, we are all actually structured in a similar way: we have customers, branches, headquarters, collaborative desktop technologies and regional or global networks. Yet we all build and expand our networks differently. No one approach is incorrect, but the question remains, why do we do it differently?

Large companies with equally large networks face problems driven by frequent equipment update releases from network vendors. Unfortunately, too many changes make networks potentially very unstable (network rule #1: if there is an outage, there was a change). The reason hardware vendors give for frequent product updates is that they are trying to satisfy the individual needs of multiple customers. But because of the many different network configurations, a change that is good for one customer might create unintended problems for another.

I'm becoming concerned that networks and IT are still not simple or standard enough. As customers, we just want something that works. Consider Apple's success with the iPhone: they have created a standardized - if proprietary - platform, where everything works as it is intended. It might not do everything, but what it does do, it does very well. Apple achieves this by controlling everything: it controls the hardware, the software and the deployment schedule.

The network industry is quite different. Vendors and network providers will go out of their way to meet the needs of all their customers and create a platform that satisfies all these different designs and topologies. Networks are such a key piece of infrastructure, but for something that offers simple connectivity, the amount of choices causes complexity. Instead, networks should be evolving like electricity in that we have a plug that delivers us network access anywhere. The technology used to deliver the network should be irrelevant to my company's competitiveness.

So is this actually possible? Look at network technology itself: it has hit a plateau in the last decade, with MPLS IP VPNs and Ethernet continuing to dominate enterprise deployments. The only big changes are in the speed of the equipment and increases in bandwidth. The real innovations are now happening in the services that are layered over the top - not in the network technology itself.

Very few banks would actually say that their company was better because of their particular network infrastructure or topology. Although actually having the network is crucial in supporting their business, the infrastructure alone doesn't give them a competitive edge. Instead, what is more important is how they manage the technology, the costs and the services they use.

There are certain standards that all enterprise should follow, such as creating a corporate-wide IP network, including adequate resilience, and maintaining high availability. This is where guidance from the industry is invaluable; they have done this before and should provide simple standardized solutions for companies to get the network infrastructure they need. Building a network shouldn't have any mystique.

I prefer to see consistent delivery of networks across the vertical industries. If other companies are affected by network problems such as denial of service, it will potentially affect my company through the increased regulation that it causes. Networks shouldn't be the reason why industries fail. We need networks to work ... they need to be available and reliable.

The simplification and standardization of networks should also be of benefit to network vendors and carriers. They can use it to bring down the cost of standard well-tested network infrastructure and focus on developing the over-the-top services and customer service that will actually differentiate them. I think the Internet has changed the way we view the network, and we now want access anywhere we go.

I mentioned Apple earlier and how their model offers a neat, contained service. Of course its main drawback is that the market is probably not ready to pay a premium for a standardized service. In fact we would be looking to draw on the simplification and standardization to deliver lower-cost services. 

Although standardization means that to a certain extent network services are commoditized, I believe that network suppliers will still be able to differentiate themselves. For example, we went through an extensive RFI exercise to find our current suppliers and whittled 40 down to five global providers. The choice between these five is not taken just on network technology - as they all offer similar services. Instead it is taken on factors such as reach, relationship, value-added services, customer service, applications and field support.

Fortunately I believe that the industry may be moving more towards a standard approach. As part of our procurement exercise, we have taken a look at the networks of the top 10 carriers. The cores of their networks are looking very similar, and I'm excited by that because we have built a global core network in a similar manner.

Complicated environments are expensive, whereas standardization and simplification will lower costs. Perhaps the solution is for network operators to offer a limited number of standard network topologies that are set at a certain price point. If an enterprise doesn't want that, then they can go for a more expensive customized deployment. So for the enterprise, they could choose a network service that has been deployed among thousands of customers worldwide or a specialist niche product that is customized for them. I know which one I would choose.

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