Survey says: Smart networks are in

The debate over whether IT buyers want to invest in dumb boxes with limited purpose or purchase hardware embedded with security, optimization and management technologies may be over.

A recent Forrester Research survey of 1,130 network-equipment decision makers at midsize and enterprise companies found that close to three-quarters of those polled prefer "smart networks." Specifically, 77 percent of respondents from large companies (those with 1,000 employees or more) want their network gear to do more than direct traffic, and 65 percent of IT buyers from midsize companies (those with 100 to 999 employees) prefer intelligent appliances to dumb boxes.

"Companies, regardless of size, region or industry, overwhelmingly prefer to use smart networks in their architecture," writes Robert Whiteley, a senior analyst at Forrester. "Hardware advancements, more sophisticated network software and better management tools mean that firms can reliably embed intelligent security, mobility, virtualization and acceleration directly into the network."

Recent product pushes from companies such as Cisco -- which announced its Services Oriented Network Architecture (SONA) and Application Oriented Networks (AON) strategies, announced last year -- prove vendors are looking to add more intelligence into their equipment. While the product strategies from Cisco, Juniper, Nortel and others are somewhat self-serving -- in that the vendors can potentially generate more revenue from their installed customer bases -- Whiteley says in the report the trend to embed software into gear will also benefit IT buyers.

According to Forrester, efforts by Cisco, Juniper and HP to improve performance in their switching gear, added virtualization features in Cisco and Juniper operating systems, and forays by equipment makers into management software could be paying off. For instance, Whiteley cites enhancements to products such as Cisco's Integrated Services Router (ISR) and Catalyst Series Switch, Nortel's Secure Router and HP ProCurve Switch 4500 series as one reason IT buyers are confident network equipment today can handle more advanced tasks.

"Products ... have been designed with the ability to operate on packets at wire speed. Firms can have confidence that the network has the requisite horsepower to maintain intelligent services -- better, in fact, than general purpose processors can," the report says.

The research firm advises IT buyers to couple their intelligent equipment with appropriate management tools.

"Smart networks are already here. In fact, most enterprises ignore the majority of network-based intelligence that lies dormant in deployed gear," Whiteley writes.

Enterprise companies should focus on tools that can help network managers "create simple, business-driven policies that are translated automatically into complex network configurations," Forrester reports.

Again, Forrester says in its report that Cisco seems to be taking a lead among equipment makers with its Network Application Performance Analysis and Proactive Automation of Change Execution product initiatives. HP's ProCurve Ethernet switches and Identity Driven Manager products -- plus the company's OpenView software management division -- also represent intelligent hardware offerings, the report says.

"But just deploying the gear isn't enough. To handle a more complex, more intelligent network, firms must invest in the right network management tools," Whiteley summarizes in the report. "Complexity will lead to increased cost if you cannot manage it properly."

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