Evolve your network or fail: How application driven networking provides competitive advantage

Cloud-based services from companies such as Amazon, Dropbox and MailChimp have upended user expectations in the enterprise. They have set the standard for what services and applications in the cloud should be—effortless to access, fast to deploy, and available everywhere.

These companies have made applications "cloud easy" and users now expect enterprises to follow suit. Why, after all, should it be more difficult to get work done at the office than at home? With user expectations rising, enterprises must evolve their networks to address this demand or risk irrelevance.

Users only care about two things: devices and applications. Yet to achieve cloud easy, enterprises must build networks that support this seemingly endless number of devices (ed: hello BYOD) and enhance the critical applications that organisations use every day—whether voice, video and multimedia, or more specialised software such as the picture archive and communication systems (PACS) used by hospitals.

We refer to these networks as being application driven. And while they have a straightforward goal—to provide cloud easy applications to users—three key roadblocks prevent most enterprises from delivering them today.

The first of these roadblocks is access. It is still far too difficult and tedious for users to access the networks, applications and services they need. The experience is inconsistent, access is often limited to a single location or device, and users must navigate too many login prompts.

Boxes are the second roadblock. Today's networks contain too many boxes—switches, routers and devices that require manual configuration when deploying applications in the enterprise. This configuration is time consuming and complicated, increasing the likelihood of human error and downtime.

Lastly, enterprises are hindered by technology silos. Applications and networks have evolved separately over the years and, for the most part, continue to do so. They must work better together in order for enterprises to deliver application driven networks.

Simplify access and identity

The first step to deliver an application driven network is the creation of an "identity of one"—a universal, role-based identity for each user that acts as a secure digital fingerprint, granting wired and wireless access to network resources from anywhere, on any device.

For users, this greatly simplifies access without impacting security. Enterprises benefit as well, since they can more easily and flexibly manage how the network is accessed by users. With role-based identities, companies can automatically provide full network access to users on their laptops, while limiting access to sensitive information on their mobile devices. And since this process remains transparent to users, they can connect to all network resources in the same way, using the same credentials.

Universal access is not new, but it is typically onerous to implement and maintain. So how can enterprises provide universal access without the maintenance baggage?

Implement an enterprise-wide fabric

An Ethernet fabric can significantly ease deployments and simplify the configuration of boxes on the network. It is the second step to building a network that is truly application driven.

Ethernet fabrics have received significant attention over the past 18 months and the benefits of having one in the data centre are clear. They streamline traffic within the data centre and reduce latency, allowing applications to access stored information more swiftly and efficiently. Networks can be configured more quickly as well—up to 25 times faster than with existing technologies, according to a 2011 Miercom study commissioned by Avaya. An Ethernet fabric also creates a "hands off" network that can significantly reduce human error and provides users with a more stable network. Important, since Yankee Group estimates that 37 per cent of network downtime is attributable to human error.

The data centre is not the only part of the network that can benefit from an Ethernet fabric. The same advantages—lower latency, faster time to service, simpler configuration—can be achieved across the entire network with an enterprise-wide fabric. And since Ethernet fabrics run on top of the network, they can more directly connect devices to applications for better performance and easier configuration.

Focus on applications

Technology silos are the final roadblock to an application driven network. Applications and networks have both seen tremendous advances over the past decade but, for the most part, their progress has happened independently. As a result, today's networks treat applications much as they always have—as traffic running over a pipe.

Application driven networks change this. They focus on and integrate with applications to provide users with better, smarter services. In the case of a video conference, that might mean prompting a user to switch from high to standard definition video when they are bandwidth restricted. Or automatically transitioning them to an audio-only connection when the conference would otherwise drop. By providing applications with up-to-the-minute network information to act on, application driven networks deliver the cloud easy services that users expect.

Achieving "cloud easy"

These three technology principles—a universal identity, an enterprise-wide fabric, and a focus on applications—form the basis for application driven networking. Each technology provides its own benefits, but they work best in combination.

Together, these principles significantly improve networks for users. They help deliver on the promise of cloud easy, with smarter applications and simple, secure network access across devices and locations. They also simplify many of the day-to-day IT maintenance tasks of enterprises, enabling services to be rolled out in minutes without serious reconfiguration of the network.

In short, application driven networks provide users with the cloud easy experiences they expect and allow enterprises to spend more resources on the strategic, forward-looking technology initiatives that give them a competitive advantage.

Marc Randall is senior vice president and general manager of Networking for Avaya, a global provider of business collaboration and communications solutions. He previously led Cisco's Scalable Networks Business Unit, was senior vice president at Brocade Communications and is the former CEO of Force10 Networks. Marc is a 25-year networking industry veteran.