Net Managers' Role Changes

Once stray dogs begging at the enterprise back door, Internet protocols and the browser interface have become network pets.

In many instances, they're now running the show, making corporate networks look a lot more like Internet service providers than yesterday's LAN and WAN setups and bringing with them new demands. Those include a better understanding of business processes on the part of network staff, which means information technology is now treated as a strategic asset, instead of just a support service.

Network managers who used to concentrate solely on the electronic infrastructure now must communicate beyond the bounds of the wiring closet, which calls for a level of human relations skills normally associated with other departments.

"The browser interface has changed the way people network, period," said V.J.

Kanabard, who directs the new e-commerce master of science degree program at Boston University's Metropolitan College.

Jack Gammon, a network manager at St. Vincent's Hospital in Birmingham, Ala., agreed. "Most everything is going Web-based," he said. "Even network management is going that way. You end up having Web servers everywhere."

In large enterprises, even old brick-and-mortar applications are being Web-enabled. According to Perry Harris, an analyst at The Yankee Group in Boston, this evolution demands an IT staff that has a broad knowledge of disparate platforms, both legacy and new.

But the Webification trend in enterprise networking asks network staff for more than technical knowledge.

It requires people who understand not just networking, but internetworking, too, which encompasses business skills, technical skills and a sense of urgency that can mean the difference between success and failure, said John Pucket, CIO at Inc. in Waltham, Mass.

According to Doug White, a partner at KPMG Peat Marwick LLP's network integration practice in Chicago, "The technical manager represented a cost center to the business whose job was to make sure that IT didn't impede business.

"Today, you need to be a business enabler," White said. "[Networking] is all about the metrics of cost containment, increased revenues from the existing client base and new clients. These are business drivers. Traditionally, it would have been about uptime and downtime." Now uptime is a given, he said.

Ram Prabhu, manager of corporate communications at Millipore Corp., a manufacturer of filters used in microbiology and electronics in Bedford, Mass., agreed. He said that before Millipore embraced the Web model, it was as though the network didn't exist. Now he works closely with Thomas Anderson, director of corporate communications, to advance Millipore's business-to-business e-commerce initiative.

Another factor that's driving Webification of corporate networks is that everyone inside and outside the enterprise is on the network. It's how business communication takes place, which, according to White, means groups previously not on the network now are often part of the network infrastructure. That lets other departments utilize elements of these once-proprietary applications from desktops or through the Internet. Filing expense reports and updating employee benefits through a browser are just two examples.

As more users become participants in the networking process, the onus is on the network staff to understand the business and respond accordingly, White says.

"Groups that don't get the responsiveness [from in-house networking staff] hire their own," he said.

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