Moving beyond mere performance

As today's organizations increasingly look at the business value of ICT solutions, performance is no longer the major driving factor in the switching and routing space. In the past, when corporates ran low on bandwidth, the easiest, but most costly, solution was to add more capacity. But now there are alternatives.

Presently, most corporates have in place strategies that are aimed at improving employee productivity, while at the same time maximizing the value of their legacy systems and fulfilling their e-business plans.

It is, however, no secret that most of these companies, at one time or another, will be faced with problems of network performance, resulting from insufficient bandwidth coupled with unstable infrastructure, which comes from them having "out-dated" backbones.

One then finds that companies overlook viable alternatives to resolve these problems, and concentrate more on improving the speed of their networks by merely adding more capacity.

In this feature, we look at viable alternatives that some of the companies might want to consider.

Martin May, regional director Africa at Enterasys Networks Inc., says that, in the "good old days", bandwidth was the issue as applications got bigger, hence hard drive and memory had to grow in proportion to this. In turn this meant increased file sharing and bandwidth demand.

"In the shared 10Mb hub environment bandwidth needed to double, treble or even quadruple. The answer - 100Mb shared. Then, in quick fashion, 10/100 switched. So from 100 users sharing 10Mbps we moved to 100Mbps piped down to each and every user. The problem with resources such as server bandwidth was that 100 users, now with dedicated 100Mb, were all trying to pull info from a single 100Mb pipe from the server," says May.

He adds that the initial answer from the industry was multiple 100Mbps cards in each server, load balancing on servers and across servers. The next industry wave was the Gigabit (Gb), then 10Gb and now we have more bandwidth than the applications would care to need ... or do we?

May continues, "Yes, we have the bandwidth to support the applications, but we also have a new threat which can saturate the largest network's total capacity - 'the virus, worm, DOS attack'. In recent months we have seen large corporations with saturated networks due to different viruses. These viruses can propagate a network at an alarming rate, literally chewing the carefully designed bandwidth configured for optimum business usage. The effect is to make the infrastructure grind to a halt."

A company's ICT department has to download the latest protection software, and diligently clean up every PC and server in the corporation. This can take days before things return to normal.

The latest networks solutions from Enterasys Networks act as a complete system, forcing individual logons onto the infrastructure from each and every user. The ICT department knows exactly who everybody is, what resources they are using, and how best to tune the infrastructure for business needs and high spot demand, using tools such as rate limiting.

A policy is enforced on an individual, or group of user basis, enabling control over the company's resources. This is combined with an active intrusion response system, which checks across the whole network, not only for security breaches, but also for network anomalies. When a virus is thought to be emanating from a machine, the system will immediately act, and shut down or rate limit the port. The effect is to keep the bandwidth available for normal business transactions, and constrict the passage of the virus, thereby giving the ICT department time to act without the business being affected.

So is bandwidth still an issue? ... no, but only if you are in total control of what you have...

- Jan Roux, technical director at Integr8 IT, says that on the switching side, bandwidth is no longer an issue for end-users, they are more interested in value-added services.

"Our clients are no longer worried about technical specs, because most of the major vendors are on a par with each other in this respect, and customers are now seeking things like the best warranty and value-added services," he says.

He adds that this has gone a long way towards influencing vendors to include things like security features in their products.

Roux says, "On the wide area network (WAN) side, companies are getting around bandwidth woes by prioritizing certain applications, thereby maximizing their existing infrastructure through the use of network management software."

Systems engineering director at Cisco, Willie Oosthuysen, who echoes Roux's sentiments, says his company is seeing four major trends in the networking market, namely an increased need for security, quality of service, bandwidth management and optimization and availability.

"As more and more applications go through networks, there is a greater demand for high availability. In addition companies have moved beyond the 'speeds and feeds' era, and are now more concerned with efficiencies and component level features, including security," says Oosthuysen.

Duxbury Networks CTO, Graham Vorster, explains that networking companies are moving toward converging technologies at the router edge, because in countries like SA, where bandwidth is still a problem, companies seem to be experiencing problems at this level.

"A lot of devices like compression devices and quality networking devices, as well as caching technologies, are helping to get around the low bandwidth conditions, rather than simply adding more bandwidth to networks," he says. He adds that vendors are also building routers that are powerful enough to take on the policy-based networking roles. Additionally, networking technology is becoming more advanced, but the price is continually falling, a factor that has been influenced by the emergence of Chinese routers onto the market.

There is a strong drive towards writing applications intelligently, so that they can handle issues on the network, because of the amount of convergence of technologies going through networks.

"One of the trends is that with all the technology being built onto routers and switches, the skills needed to manage these networks are increasing. Thus, one of the results is moving towards having a network that is able to identify what is sitting at its edge, even if it is third party devices," says Vorster.

This also brings the need to improve security on the networks, because of their complexity and vulnerability to security breaches.

"If you manage your bandwidth properly, the cost of your bandwidth will also go down, and automatic authentication improves efficiencies and reduces the need for repetitive tasks," he adds.

He notes that some might want to call it the commoditization of networks, but, what it is, is the consolidation of all the rich information available on the network for enterprise benefit.

3Com Corp. country manager, Chris van Niekerk, says the networking environment is at a stage where the PC was a couple of years ago, in that products have been commoditized so that they are almost the same.

He says now that speeds are improving, and wireless networking will gain much marketshare, while at the same time he sees a lot of potential in the LAN/IP telephony space.

Van Niekerk says some of his customers have been saving hundreds of thousands of rands as a result of implementing this technology.

"From a large enterprise perspective, what we are getting from our customers is that they are looking at the best way to implement network products: resiliency is imperative, as well as quality of service and redundancy across the network," he explains.

With the slight uncertainty as to how the ICT industry will perform this year, end-users are still looking at how they can still get more return on their legacy systems.

Essentially end-users are looking at simplicity in usage, while at the same time they need to get good performance at an affordable price from their networks. It seems, however, that the only way to get all this is by implementing intelligent systems that allow them to do so without having to undergo a complete network overhaul.

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