Change as a result of Digital Transformation is inevitable in the current digital era and companies should be scaling their network infrastructure correctly and utilising the most appropriate data centre solutions. JR Rivers, Co-founder and CTO, Cumulus Networks, talks about the importance of a modernised approach to IT and improving operational efficiency.
Digital Transformation means different things to different organisations. Perhaps it means shifting workloads to the cloud, digging deeper into data analytics, giving employees more options for mobility or automating more processes. But one thing’s for sure: no matter what your Digital Transformation strategy looks like, your network is going to be either the hero or a hindrance to your Digital Transformation efforts.
This is largely due to the fact that applications have gained unprecedented importance as the means by which organisations define themselves and their relationships with their customers. Therefore, a company’s success is linked to how nimbly they can develop and deliver applications that facilitate engagement and business outcomes.
If applications are the lifeblood of today’s organisations, networks are the digital nervous systems that support and deliver those applications. The problem is, while application architectures and development methods have become more agile, the traditional data centre network has not kept pace.
A new approach to operational efficiency
According to Gartner, ‘the top networking challenge… is improving agility’. This, of course, is not a big surprise. What is surprising is Gartner’s advice to ‘pick how you want to manage your data centre network first, then pick the vendor/products that can slot into that decision’. This means that the answer to improving your organisation’s network speed and agility is not necessarily by buying expensive, proprietary monster switches and premium automation solutions. Instead, modernisation starts with IT and network operations which can be achieved through network automation, greater overall visibility into the network, and IT-as-a-Service models. A conventional ‘one size fits all’ approach to networking just doesn’t work in the cloud era.
In order to prepare the 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.
Naturally, each networking vendor presents their solution as having the beefiest hardware and the most cutting-edge software. They can make that claim because often they will 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 for your organisation to adopt a solution that enables you to scale and automate your network.
The importance of scalability
Network scalability means growing the data centre 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 an organisation has to triple network spend to double capacity and performance, the network isn’t very scalable. But if they reverse the numbers – double the network spend and triple capacity and performance (and do so quickly) – the network is highly scalable. The level of scalability the organisation can achieve depends on the underlying network architecture.
Each organisation must decide whether to scale vertically or scale horizontally. While this might sound like a topic that IT geeks debate over a cup of coffee, it’s a decision that creates a ripple effect throughout the rest of the organisation.
Traditionally, if an organisation has been unsure about which particular switch model will be beefy enough to meet its growth needs, it has opted for the larger (and more expensive) one. To use IT jargon, they would scale up or scale vertically to meet performance requirements. That’s not necessarily unreasonable. But when taking the vertical scaling approach, organisations are limited to the biggest box available at the time. And if the monster switch they bought isn’t big enough, they then have to rip it out and replace it, which translates into downtime.
Instead of buying a large, high-capacity switch, you can combine multiple smaller switches to get the performance you could get from one large switch. This is called scaling out, or scaling horizontally. The advantage of this is that you aren’t 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 it has redundant connections, the impact may be minimal – just a temporary drop in performance.
As one might expect, cloud providers use the scaling out approach to achieve performance, reliability and agility at a massive scale. If an organisation is serious about Digital Transformation, its network has to use the same approach.
The pursuit of fully automated configurations
Today, there is unprecedented pressure on the data centre network to not only scale and remain performant, but also gain far greater agility and flexibility through extensive automation of the entire network life cycle, from provisioning and deployment to day-to-day management and upgrades. As the network grows and becomes more complex, manual configurations become increasingly time-consuming, difficult and risky. Automation is therefore a key piece of the scalability puzzle.
Unfortunately, the tight coupling of hardware and software limits organisations’ automation choices. A proprietary network operating system means either using proprietary automation software or, as this is a closed environment, using an API to stitch it all together. Again, the ‘one size fits all’ mentality prevents an organisation from achieving its Digital Transformation goals.
To make the network fast and agile, your operating system needs to support open source automation tools like Ansible, Chef and Puppet. Your networking team needs the freedom to craft customised automation solutions that meet organisational objectives.
Staying on top of the health of data centre networks
Combined with the threat of network outages, the widespread adoption of microservices, containers and virtual machines has added a new layer of complexity in the data centre, resulting in a strain on traditional networks and the need to achieve operational simplicity. When an issue arises, organisations are forced to go hunting for the proverbial needle in the haystack, implementing a manual, box-to-box intervention because they don’t have a holistic view of all the activities putting demands on the network.
In order to ensure the data centre network is behaving as intended, obtaining a holistic view of the network is critical. This translates into the ability to collect data, analyse it and visualise it in real time in order to obtain actionable insights and effectively manage the data centre network. CEOs are increasingly viewing infrastructure as a strategic resource to their business and having a direct view across the network enables teams to prevent outages achieving an even greater ROI from their data centre.
The benefits of challenging the networking status quo
Enterprises in all vertical markets and geographies are finding that change is inevitable in the era of Digital Transformation. This is especially true in the data centre, where architectures, infrastructure, people and processes must go hand-in-hand with increased IT and operational efficiencies, faster provisioning of resources, improved network management and troubleshooting. All of this needs to happen within the context of faster time to market and better alignment of IT teams with the business outcomes that matter most to the organisations that employ them.
Fortunately, IT transformation initiatives provide enterprises with the opportunity to reassess network architectures and operational models in light of the need for a modernised approach to IT. In the sphere of networking, that means implementing practices that heavily emphasise automation, flexibility and scalability to deliver operational agility and efficiency gains, which would ultimately translate into increased revenue and overall organisational success.