Transform your network to support digital business

When it comes to networking, many businesses’ long-established practices no longer fit the environment in which they now find themselves

Networking will be critical infrastructure for digital business initiatives over the next five years. Just as digital business forces a rethinking of fundamental business processes, IT infrastructure leaders must rethink networking from data centre to cloud to device, from people to process to products.

When it comes to doing networking for digital business, however, what if I told you that everything done today is wrong? This may seem harsh, but it’s the reality for most organisations. It's not that they intentionally try to do things wrong; it’s simply that their long-established practices no longer fit the environment in which they now find themselves.

Networks have been operated in a risk-averse manner, which limits network agility. This inhibits adoption of new business models and offerings, as well as their underlying technology initiatives such as the Internet of Things (IoT) and multi-cloud computing. This behaviour restrains business agility and reduces competitiveness.

Uptime and cost efficiencies are generally two of the top priorities within networking organisations. This, however, obstructs strategic investments and drives network operations to prioritise stability over responsiveness to the changing needs of the business.

While businesses have invested in digital transformation, networking has seen reductions in financial and personnel investments. Reducing head count furthers the network operations (NetOps) team's desire to resist change and avoid risk. This has led to a culture of risk aversion and incrementalism, ultimately preventing networking from keeping pace with the needs of the business.

Organisations that fail to adjust network funding and operational practices will be three times more likely to fail in their digital business transformation before the end of 2021, according to Gartner. So how can you transform the network when it looks like the deck is stacked against you?

Start with a top-down approach

You must change how you fund networking; build and operate your networks; and measure and reward network teams.

  • Fund networking

Work with management to change their mindset regarding network funding. Engage with them in a business oriented, non-technology driven discussion. Explain how an investment in networking will drive an increase in the overall revenue, rather than showing how you can cut network spending to improve the bottom line.

One way to do this is to think about networking as an integral piece of any new product or service offering delivered by your company. Demonstrate in business terms the need to constantly invest in the network, just as the organisation would do in new applications and services, to be able to support strategic business initiatives.

2. Build networks

Change how you think about risk to move quickly and be responsive to the needs of the business. Many people think that web scale operators, such as Google, Amazon and Microsoft, are better at being agile because they know how to operate at scale. The reality is that they're able to do this because they have a very different way of thinking about and dealing with risk.

They don't avoid risk. They embrace and manage it. They know how to contain the impact of a risk and recognise that the business cannot move forward in an environment where risk is not tolerated. This different mindset inhabits everything they do, from how they design and build their data centres (including their networks), to how they choose to operate.

3. Design and operate

Rethink how you do plumbing – limit network flexibility to enable agility. The first step is to change how you design and operate your network. Don't think of it as ubiquitous plumbing that allows any workload to be placed anywhere at any time. Think about reasonable degrees of segmentation that gives you more flexibility across the environment. This allows the introduction of new technologies and vendors.

It's important from both an attitude and a practice standpoint to embrace the new. Place a greater focus on software and management, rather than hardware. Move to fit for purpose software rather than one-size-fits-all to improve reliability and flexibility. Leverage embedded analytics to understand the environment, minimise downtime and reduce time to repair a fault. Institute KPIs that align with business outcomes.

4. Measure and reward

Push network teams to step out of their comfort zone and embrace new approaches in building and operating networks. Innovation can't occur in an environment of fear, so a combination of new KPIs and incentives is important to move network teams ahead. Shift the focus to measuring responsiveness and minimizing the impact of outages and away from overall availability and cost reduction. Allocate resources to enable your team to learn about new technologies, techniques and approaches. Also allocate budget so they can acquire tools to gain hands-on experience.

Network teams have to be involved with business leaders that are driving change so they understand the risks and benefits of new initiatives. Give them the permission and time to test new approaches and new vendors. It's a way of containing risk and embracing innovation.

Joe Skorupa is a vice president and distinguished analyst at Gartner. He advises clients on network architectures, technology acquisition and vendor negotiation. Joe will be speaking about how to transform your network to support digital business at Gartner IT Infrastructure, Operations Management and Data Centre Summit in Sydney, 30 April – 1 May 2018.

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