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Preparing your network for digital transformation

(Image credit: Image Credit: Chombosan / Shutterstock)

According to IDC, worldwide spending on the technologies and services that enable the digital transformation of business practices and products will reach $1.97 trillion by 2022. But while most organisations agree on the benefits of embarking on the road to digital transformation – including reduced operational costs, consolidated operations, better data analytics and the ability to take products to market faster, among many others – they way each carries it out varies greatly. For some it means shifting workloads to the cloud, while for others it’s about digging deeper into data analytics, giving employees more options for mobility or automating more processes. But one thing’s for sure: no matter what each digital transformation strategy looks like, their network is going to be either the hero or a hindrance to their digital transformation efforts.

In order to prepare your network for digital transformation, it has to be both customised to fit your organisation’s needs and be flexible enough to adapt when those needs change. Consequently, a “one size fits all” approach to networking doesn’t work anymore. Unsurprisingly, Gartner says that “the top networking challenge… is improving agility.” But what is surprising is Gartner’s advice to “shift investments away from premium networking products toward [your] existing network personnel.” In other words, the answer to improving your network’s speed and agility is not by buying expensive, proprietary switches and premium automation solutions. Instead, it’s letting the people who best know your network and your organisational needs – your network team – decide the best way to make it more agile. But just redirecting resources toward network personnel isn’t enough.

The network’s nuts and bolts

Most networks are composed of tightly-integrated hardware devices and software. That means your network’s growth, agility and performance hinges on three things: how powerful the hardware is; the features the software provides; and how well the hardware and software work together.

As expected, each networking vendor presents their solution as having the sturdiest hardware and the most cutting-edge software. They claim that because they make both, the hardware and software work together flawlessly. But hidden in the midst of this seemingly unbeatable combination is a problem. Although the tight coupling of hardware and software by the same manufacturer may ensure compatibility, it kills flexibility. If your network’s hardware and software is inflexible and cumbersome, it will always be a hindrance to agility. No matter how dedicated your network team is, they can’t change the underlying architecture of a vendor’s solution. That’s why it’s crucial to adopt a solution that enables you to scale and automate your network.

The importance of being scalable

Network scalability gives you the ability to grow your network in proportion to your organisation’s needs. There are different levels of scalability, as well as different ways to achieve it. For example, if you have to triple your network spend to double capacity and performance, your network isn’t very scalable. But if you reverse the numbers – double your network spend, and triple your capacity and performance (and do so quickly) – your network is highly scalable. The level of scalability you can achieve depends on the underlying network architecture. 

Your first option is to scale vertically. Networking vendors have always addressed flexibility and performance concerns by selling the “bigger is better” mentality – if you’re not sure which switch model to go with, just opt for the larger (and more expensive) one. In this instance, you would scale up or scale vertically to meet your performance requirements. The drawback to this approach is you’re limited to the biggest box available at the time. When you outgrow it, you’ll need to replace it, which inevitably entails downtime.

As an alternative, your second option is to scale out, otherwise known as scaling horizontally. Instead of buying a large, high-capacity switch, you can combine multiple smaller switches to get the same level of performance.  The advantage of this is that you’re not limited by the power of a single switch. As your needs grow, you can add more smaller switches, and they’ll all work together to share the load. A happy consequence of scaling out is that you limit the size of your failure domains. If one small switch out of dozens fails, the impact is small. If you’ve got redundant connections, the impact may be minimal – just a temporary drop in performance.

As you might expect, cloud providers use the scaling out approach to achieve performance, reliability and agility at a massive scale. If you’re serious about digital transformation, your network has to use the same approach.

The inevitability of automation

As your network grows and becomes more complex, manual configurations become increasingly time-consuming, difficult and risky. Automation is the final piece of the scalability puzzle.

Unfortunately, implementing a proprietary network limits your automation choices, as it obligates you to either use proprietary automation software or hack your own automation solution. Again, the “one size fits all” mentality gets in the way of you achieving your digital transformation goals.

To make your network fast and agile, your network operating system needs to support open-source automation tools like Ansible, Chef and Puppet, which will give your networking team the freedom to craft customised automation solutions that meet your organisational objectives.

In short, digital transformation is changing the ways organisations think about their network’s scalability and agility. As the demand for more power and speed increases with digital adoption and innovation, these changes will become immediately critical. To stay ahead of the game, organisations need to think through these changes, and leverage disaggregation, horizontal scale and automation.

JR Rivers, Co-founder and CTO, Cumulus Networks
Image Credit: Chombosan / Shutterstock

JR is a co-founder and CTO of the company where he works on company, technology, and product direction. JR has been involved with networking since Ethernet only ran on coaxial cables. He's worked on some of the most foundational networking products of their time, from early Network Interface Cards at 3Com through switching and routing products at Cisco. JR's early involvement in home-grown networking at Google and as the VP of System Architecture for Cisco's Unified Computing System both helped fine tune his perspective on networking for the modern datacentre.