It is fair to say that digital transformation of enterprise processes and business models will not happen without a highly flexible network. But even with the benefits of abstraction, how will future network architectures support the kinds of applications and services that are needed to thrive in a changing economy, particularly as infrastructure itself extends far beyond the enterprise’s own footprint?
For some time now, it has been clear to leading IT executives that networking will be the foundation for digital transformation. Cisco’s David Goeckeler, senior VP of networking and security, told a company gathering in Las Vegas last summer that without a high degree of flexibility on the network layer, the enterprise will be unable to adapt quickly enough to the changing data patterns that characterize a digitally driven economy. In a connected world as envisioned by the proponents of the Internet of Things, market opportunities will come and go in the blink of an eye, which means network infrastructure and the policies that oversee it will have to move in real time in order to maintain a competitive advantage.
This is why simply abstracting networks along the lines of software-defined networking (SDN) and network functions virtualization (NFV) will not be enough. To fully leverage the power of digital transformation, networks will have to be automated, secure, open and transparent, says CIO.com’s Steve Wexler. Digital transformation, in fact, is only the first step in a much broader movement toward digital cohesion: the point at which applications can define their own operating environments and even self-assemble into mega-services that can deliver a wide range of capabilities in a predictive manner and with little direct oversight from either users or technicians. It’s the difference between people adapting their lifestyles to digital technology and the technology adapting to the individual.
The groundwork for this level of functionality is only just beginning to emerge from the lab. Brocade recently announced an expanded set of SLX switches and new tools that provide deep visibility and broad automation across the entire distributed network architecture. While the package compiles the Workflow Composer automation suite with new programmable ASICS to enable rapid network deployment and full-stack service and resource orchestration, putting all the pieces together in an integrated manner will require a fair amount of work by the enterprise. Brocade designed the system around the SLX Insight Architecture, which features an open kernel virtual machine (KVM) design that accommodates third-party and homegrown monitoring, troubleshooting and other tools, all of which will still require integration, testing and broad policy definition before it can be trusted to production environments.
But while digital transformation is already underway in the broader economy, many organizations are lagging when it comes to prepping their legacy networks for the change. According to Electric Lightwave, numerous studies indicate broad confidence among enterprise executives in their organization’s ability to revamp their networks, even though many say they have less than a year to put the process in motion. A British Telecom survey of 1,000 top decision-makers, for example, found that while networking is considered to be the heart of cloud computing, mobility, digitization and a host of other initiatives, nearly two-thirds say their current infrastructure is struggling to support the rapid adoption of advanced technologies. Security and legacy systems remain the key stumbling blocks.
It’s been said that nothing spurs action like a crisis, and the fact is that aside from key sectors like finance and transportation, digital transformation is still more of a thought exercise than a practical reality for most enterprises. But the blinders are about to be ripped off. In the coming year, expect to see wholesale replacement of traditional business models with newer streamlined services that reflect the mobile-facing, high-speed lifestyles that both consumers and knowledge workers are embracing.
By the end of the decade, we should already be seeing the fall-out among organizations that fail to adapt quickly enough.
Arthur Cole covers networking and the data center for Enterprise Networking Planet and IT Business Edge. He has served as editor of numerous publications covering everything from audio/video production and distribution, multimedia and the Internet to video gaming.