Revving the E-commerce Engine

FRAMINGHAM (01/31/2000) - E-commerce, voice/data convergence and virtual private networks (VPN) are technologies everyone already talks about.

And, according to a new Network World survey, a lot more of that talk is going to become action over the next two years.

E-commerce promises to be an especially potent force for change. Two years from now, companies surveyed expect e-commerce to bring in an average of 41 percent of their total revenue, and they'll be dedicating an average of $83 million per year to their e-commerce efforts, the survey indicates.

Interviews with network executives support the findings.

"We've got a major thrust into e-commerce," says Mike Ackermann, manager of network planning and design at Blue Cross/Blue Shield of Michigan. "I don't think our precise strategy has solidified, but we have dedicated a lot of resources - personnel, finances and otherwise."

The Network World 500 survey polled 500 network professionals and covered topics ranging from network operating systems (NOS) and wireless networks to network management. The results paint a picture of what networks may look like in a few years.

The convergence of voice and video on data networks figures prominently for many companies. About 57 percent of respondents said convergence makes sense in LANs and WANs; another 17 percent said it makes sense in just WANs; and 11 percent said it makes sense in just LANs. Only 13 percent said convergence doesn't make sense in either network.

More than 80 percent of respondents believed convergence will reduce operational and infrastructure costs.

Nevertheless, many companies aren't quite there yet.

"We've been gearing up our networks to accommodate streaming video," says Dennis Butcher, network consultant at oil company Atlantic Richfield in Los Angeles. But his voice network is likely to remain separate for some time.

"We've enjoyed not having any issues with our PBXs," he says.

IP is the best protocol for voice to travel over, according to 42 percent of respondents. Another 35 percent preferred ATM, and 9 percent opted for frame relay.

IP's popularity is also reflected in the responses concerning VPNs. VPNs are already used by 42 percent of those surveyed, and another 36 percent said they will use VPNs within two years. In fact, 58 percent said it's at least "somewhat likely" that VPN services will supply all their organizations' remote access needs in three years.

The network professionals we surveyed generally looked favorably on Windows NT and Active Directory. For e-commerce servers, 70 percent of respondents said they are using or will use NT, while 59 percent said the same about Unix operating systems. When asked what NOSes are installed at their organizations, 93 percent said NT, 71 percent said Unix, and 57 percent said NetWare.

However, NT runs neck-and-neck with Unix operating systems as the NOS in which respondents have the most confidence. About 39 percent chose NT, compared with 38 percent for the various types of Unix and 15 percent for NetWare.

Some see NT as a fit for specific applications.

"I still don't think Windows NT is to the point where I'd want to run my Web site on it," says Brent Ayers, director of engineering and operations at Holiday Channel, which provides ways to let users shop for gifts online.

In the future, Ayers says he'd feel more comfortable using a free, open source operating system such as Linux, in conjunction with Apache Web server software.

Still, he acknowledges that NT works well for the company's internal applications.

Despite the fact that Active Directory has yet to ship with Windows 2000, it already has users' attention.

About 36 percent of respondents said they plan to implement Active Directory in the next 12 months, compared with 20 percent for Novell Directory Services.

Other highlights of the survey:

In network management, respondents valued the basics. We asked them to rate different management capabilities, and troubleshooting and event notification came out on top, with 92 percent calling the capability "important" or "very important."

Other top concerns among respondents are storage management and the comparison of performance against service-level agreements. At the bottom of the list are software distribution and asset/change management.

Handheld devices will become more important in the workplace, according to the survey. About 51 percent said they will purchase handheld devices for employees within the next 12 months, and another 10 percent will support employee device purchases.

The time for wireless networks hasn't quite arrived. More than half of those surveyed said they have no plans to use wireless LANs.

Network professionals continue to be in extraordinarily high demand. About 24 percent of those surveyed said it's "difficult" to find qualified technical personnel, and another 38 percent said it's "very difficult."

The most telling statistic may be this: Fully half of those surveyed said they have received five or more calls from companies or headhunters about job opportunities in the past 12 months.

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