Analysis: Network effects

Networking technologies are often taken for granted, dismissed as mere "speeds and feeds," whereas operating systems, middleware, and applications get special attention. But sometimes the network itself is the disruptive technology.

Go to a downtown Starbucks and watch people writing e-mail while they sip on coffee at three bucks a cup. Or go to a meeting and watch everyone start checking their e-mail when they're bored with whatever it is you're saying.

Wireless networking is changing nearly everything about the way we work and, in the process, everything about how we define our places in the enterprise.

Although 802.11b has been a disruptive technology for a while, other forms of wireless communication are joining it. Expect to see new forms of wireless access next year that will help produce the much-anticipated ubiquitous computing environment. Meanwhile, the three flavors of 802.11 wireless networking -- a, b, and g -- will increase pressure on IT departments to adapt to wireless networking.

The pressure is likely to overwhelm companies that fail to move fast enough. Individual users are already installing their own access points and wireless routers. Eventually, the IT department will have to acknowledge their existence and bring them into the overall network security and management environment.

Gathering steam

So how is a technology that's already disruptive going to become a disruptive technology next year? Simple. Despite all the hoopla about wireless networking this past year, the groundswell has just begun. Only a small minority of companies have embraced wireless networking, and only a few more are starting to tolerate it. In '03, the rate of adoption will accelerate and profoundly affect companies and their IT departments.

If your company isn't already feeling the effects of wireless nets, it will begin to feel them soon. Wireless technology isn't going to go away, users aren't going to abandon its convenience and freedom, and companies won't want to lose the potential gains in productivity. But they will be faced with the problems of dealing with changes, and those problems, despite the apparent simplicity of wireless, are significant.

Embracing wireless communications means a couple of important things to your IT organization. First, you'll definitely need to pay attention to security. Second, although you'll be freed from having to deal with most of the cable plant, you'll instead need to either hire or train people who understand radio. You know that geezer in the mail room with the ham radio license plates on his car? Maybe you should start talking to him about a career change.

It's no secret that out-of-the-box wireless security leaves something to be desired. Even if you enable the default security for your wireless environment, it's probably not enough to meet the security requirements of your business. So, in addition to implementing a new wireless infrastructure, you'll need to implement a new layer of security.

And, of course, you'll need to deal with the issues of communicating by radio. Implementing a wireless infrastructure is fundamentally different from installing wires. Radio waves from different access points can interfere with one another, and with other devices that may share the same part of the radio spectrum. As you move to wireless devices with radio frequencies in the microwave part of the spectrum, you'll find yourself dealing with propagation characteristics you probably don't expect.

For example, you might discover two workers sitting right next to each other using the same type of hardware and identically configured software, but only one of them will be able to successfully communicate with the wireless network.

The reason you and your IT department are going to find yourselves moving toward a wireless infrastructure is because of the increased freedom and productivity it provides to the people who work at your company. As your fellow employees find that they can have access to their work, and to their desktops, regardless of where they find themselves, they're going to demand that access. And that demand will increase at all levels.

One prime mover driving wireless technology is the virtualization of computing resources. Employees are already discovering that it's possible to access their company workspaces from nearly any wireless device ranging from their laptop computer to their cell phone. It's unlikely that you'll be typing long reports on your cell phone, but sending and receiving e-mail from these devices is already routine. And the technology exists to attach office documents and files your to those e-mails.

Feeding the virtual office

Virtual desktops, virtual workspaces, sending documents by cell phone -- cool technologies all. But you know that nothing this handy comes without some price, usually a high one. Your new virtual office is no exception.

Beyond the wireless infrastructure you'll have to implement and the security provisions that you probably should be putting in place already, the price is yet more infrastructure, more software, additional servers, and of course, additional staff. The reason is obvious: The software that makes those virtual workspaces and desktops possible has to run somewhere, and if it's not at your place, then it will be at a service provider. Either way, it's not going to be free. Nor will you get away with unloading everything on that service provider. Somewhere along the line, you'll need to provide access -- secured access -- to your network.

But the work doesn't start or end with simply planning for virtual offices. Not only must you get a handle on your security and your wireless access, you also must figure out what the people who work at your company really need, what they want (not necessarily the same thing), and what you're prepared to deliver to them.

Just while you're cursing any and all disruptive technology, and finding ways to eliminate any sort of virtual access, the other shoe drops. You suddenly have a lot more information moving about your enterprise, and that Fast Ethernet network you installed a couple of years ago is inadequate. In fact, you realize that there are places on your network where the new gigabit ports on a few of your switches will be maxed out.

Fortunately, your options may not prove too costly or disruptive if your infrastructure is fairly up to date. If you're going to be moving to faster communications than the existing Gigabit Ethernet on part of your network, putting 10Gigabit Ethernet into service is fairly straightforward. For example, the fiber you already have may work just fine with 10GbE. Likewise, the switch backplanes may support 10GbE simply by adding a new blade to what you've already got. And you can use those gigabit ports with your servers. Maybe.

Unfortunately, if you're like many, perhaps most, enterprises, your infrastructure isn't particularly up to date. You don't have much fiber in the datacenter, your switches don't support 10gigabit speeds, and your servers support Fast Ethernet only with great difficulty. The move to a 10GbE environment will be an ambitious effort, as well as a necessity. On the other hand, it can be fairly easy to justify the need. After all, you're being required to support a whole new wireless infrastructure and virtual offices for everyone. You need to move more data to do this, and if you can't move more data, you can't support the other needs.

On the plus side, you can also point out that because 10Gigabit Ethernet is so standardized, it eliminates much of the cost of maintaining your old ATM backbone connection to the other office across town. Even better, you can use the same long-haul fiber with 10GbE that you used with ATM.

But one thing is certain: You don't have a lot of time to start moving. Gigabit Ethernet went from being exotic to being the default for switches and servers in a few months. The even more standardized 10Gigabit Ethernet may move even faster.

The good news and the bad news are the same. The demand for virtual offices and wireless access, and the fact that one intimately affects the other, will coalesce into an urgent, enterprisewide demand that may be impossible to resist.

Fortunately, you won't have to resist. Instead, just get used to the idea that this great disruption may help your company move forward to new levels of productivity and responsiveness, and help to stay ahead of your competitors (who are thinking the same thing, of course).

In one sense, the new freedom of time and space will change everything. In another, it will also give you new freedoms, and perhaps discover that there's life outside the datacenter.

Disruptive?

Sure. But not necessarily bad.

Wi-Fi, virtualization drive network evolutionAlthough Wi-Fi, virtualization, and 10Gigabit Ethernet made significant gains in 2002, this year will see these technologies further shake up the enterprise landscape.

On the 10GbE front, much of the disruption will be economic. Simply put, 10GbE is too expensive. But that will change quickly as the prices of optics and other components continue to plummet. According to some estimates, the cost of 10GbE equipment is expected to drop by at least 30 percent by the end of 2003.

And an affordable price tag coupled with the fact that servers will increasingly come standard with 10GbE ports means the need for more 10GbE as an aggregating technology will grow. Cisco Systems Inc., Foundry Networks, and Extreme Networks are expected to launch boxes this year based on a new architecture. Each vendor's current 10GbE products rely on old designs. They've reached capacity limit with the boxes and will likely attempt to bring out new, denser boxes in the way startup Force10 Networks has.

Wi-Fi will prove to be a disruptive technology as it continues to impact a broad spectrum of the IT landscape. Wi-Fi's integration into the corporate network will bring big changes from both technology and business perspectives. As hot spots in public places increase along with wireless LAN connectivity on campus, corporate IT is already struggling with building the technology for seamless roaming between sub-nets without dropping data or having to re-authenticate its users.

And now that employees have almost continuous access to data both on and off campus, senior management must decide how to change business processes to leverage the potential for increased productivity.

In the telecommunications industry, the sudden appearance of hot spots has threatened to take potential customers off their networks and onto Wi-Fi networks for access to data. Down the road, carriers face additional loss in revenues as voice customers find their way onto Wi-Fi networks using VoIP (voice over IP) run by such nontelecom companies as Boingo, Gric, and Cometa.

In response, the wireless carriers are buying, designing, and building out the technology to give mobile users the ability to roam between wireless LANs and the WANs. The moves signal the onset of what's becoming known as mesh networks that link users around the country in ad hoc peer-to-peer networks.

On the virtualization front, vendors will strive to better articulate their definition of a sweeping term that is hazily defined as a means to make multiple technologies seem as one. In the storage management space, vendors will continue to jockey for position in a market saturated with products touting the virtualization moniker. However, enterprises will reap cost savings as the technology permits improved management and reduces the number of heads required to manage a SAN.

Most significantly, the concept of virtualization will rear its head as a technology employed in the datacenter. Look for vendors such as IBM and Hewlett-Packard to further disaggregate the components that make up a server, thus helping enterprises drive down server costs.

Instead of self-contained boxes, we'll continue to see platforms that permit the virtualization of computing resources across multiple servers in a distributed computing paradigm. Vendors will also introduce virtualization devices for servers, giving servers the capability to borrow resources from distributed compute resources. Start-ups including InfiniCon Systems and Topspin Communications are focused on this space.

-- Scott Tyler Shafer and Ephraim Schwartz

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