To stay competitive, organizations must continue to evolve while changing both processes and technologies.
“Keeping pace with both customer demands and competitors requires businesses to become adept at bringing in new technologies and integrating them with existing network resources,” says Mike Fratto, a principal enterprise networking and data center technology analyst for Current Analysis.
Yet while most businesses want to keep pace by embracing next-generation technologies and the long-term benefits they provide, many fail to fully explore potentially valuable solutions due to business pressures as well as demands presented by network maintenance, security monitoring and related tasks.
Organizations looking to update processes and technologies also face the risk of inflaming tensions between IT staff and lines of business, as IT departments struggle to meet new demands placed on already stressed networks by business unit decisions, often made without IT leaders’ direct input. “It's all a balancing act, one with great implications for an organization's future,” Fratto says.
Any initiative involving technology integration should begin with IT and business representatives working together to research and pinpoint promising new technologies. “Getting multiple perspectives on market trends and potentially disruptive forces in technology is key,” says Fred Chagnon, research director of the infrastructure practice at the Info-Tech Research Group.
Self-directed research is also important. “Reading technology news articles, blogs and forums is a great way to maintain a pulse on trends in the market,” Chagnon says. “The more perspectives you have, the more informed you can be.”
Mike Matchett, a senior analyst and consultant for Taneja Group, an IT analysis and advisory firm, advises both IT and business leaders to read analyst reports and vendor white papers while maintaining a critical eye toward depth and substance. “I think the real question, though, is should someone take on a proof-of-concept [POC] every time something new comes along and, if so, how to really evaluate a range of possible solutions quickly.” Matchett believes that a POC that works often steers the company toward rapid deployment, despite not really having considered or tested competing approaches that might work better.
Vendors can help smooth out integration issues before they grow into project-threatening monsters. “The best vendors are acting more like trusted advisers these days, helping their clients achieve business goals more directly through the use of technology even if it's not their own core solutions,” Matchett says.
Regular engagement with vendor sales and partner teams can help a business keep an eye on important new technology developments, says Scott Miles, senior director of cloud and enterprise portfolio marketing for Juniper Networks. “Many have the view that the primary focus of a sales team is to sell, but if you ask our sales teams, their primary focus is to enable the customer's success and solve problems to alleviate customer pain points,” he says.
With the rapid pace of change, input from a systems integrator has become essential for successful technology integration. “We see a huge role for integrators in helping customers identify and deploy new technologies,” says Liam Kiely, vice president for fabrics and infrastructure with Avaya. “The integrator is one step removed from the vendor and can often provide very objective assessments of needs and how best they can be addressed.”
Integrators and IT decision-makers must keep in mind a couple of important considerations, Chagnon says. “On one hand, the integrator team needs to be aware of the organization's business and IT goals so that it can home in on trending technologies that may be able to further enable those goals,” he notes. “On the other hand, the team is also encouraged to communicate any capabilities that are, or could be, available that could further help accomplish these goals.”
Kiely notes that close collaboration with an integrator needs to continue throughout the planning process. “Then consider having a validation period for the new technology to ensure that, when deployed, it meets all of your stated goals,” he says. “Then finalize your purchase or service contract.”
Any proposed solution should be carefully studied for its potential impact on existing network resources. Integration team leaders need to consider the capacity, security and maintenance demands a new solution might require. “That means a complete analysis, including network performance monitoring and application performance monitoring,” Fratto says. “These are two things nobody wants to pay for, but everybody needs.”
As current network resources are measured against a proposed solution's anticipated demands, it's important to remember that network technology is on the cusp of a revolution that will soon create unprecedented levels of added flexibility and capacity. “In the next few years, we will see another huge wave of higher-speed technology hitting all points in the network, with software-defined speeds configurable as 1 gigabit, 2.5G or 5G on the access side and with 10G, 25G, 40G, 50G and 100G on uplinks and trucking connections,” Kiely says. “The next-generation hardware will have huge capacity built in when purchased, and this can be enabled in software as needs arise to deploy wireless, video and collaboration services requiring capacity infrastructure.”
In advance of this networking resource tsunami, businesses should focus on creating elastic solutions capable of accommodating new network technologies. “This includes solutions that can scale up or down and take into consideration the benefits from software-defined networking [SDN], network functions virtualization [NFV] and automation technology advancements,” Miles says.
Many technology integration projects run into problems created by unforeseen standards mismatches. “Favoring technologies that are based on open standards rather than proprietary technology will drastically reduce the risk of interoperability issues and vendor lock-in,” Chagnon says.
After mapping out an open standards-based infrastructure, the next goal should be to reach for the maximum possible level of automation. “Network automation is the key to accelerating service adoption based on new technologies,” Kiely says. “It minimizes the planning cycle, reduces the likelihood of manual errors and allows IT to focus on the finer details of the new service and technologies without spending unnecessary time on nominal tasks.”
A staged POC is an approach commonly used to integrate new technologies into a running environment. “Network solutions that are being integrated into active traffic paths will typically support a 'fail to wire' mode that can be used to control when features are enabled so that changes in behavior can be monitored more closely,” Chagnon says.
It's also important to have a backup strategy in place should a new deployment fail to integrate successfully. “Nothing ensures that a live rollout will work, so it's imperative to be able to roll back any new introductions quickly, Matchett advises.
Tension between IT and business units can lead to serious integration issues and other technology-related headaches. Constant, meaningful communication is necessary to coordinate strategies as well as to prevent misunderstandings. “Overall, businesses have been good about sharing their goals with IT,” Chagnon says. “Conversely, IT needs to communicate how their projects are aligned with these goals.”
Translating how technology projects are achieving successful business outcomes is often where communication breaks down, Chagnon says. “Developing an effective technology roadmap is a good communication vehicle that can aid IT in demonstrating their alignment with the business’s goals,” he notes.
When IT and business leaders find ways to work together to create new solutions and services, everyone wins. “The problem is that IT is often stuck under the wheels of the bus, and the business is inside stepping on the accelerator wondering why it's not going faster,” Matchett says. “IT needs to work more like a service provider, and business needs to invite IT to help solve the real business problems, not just provide infrastructure,” Matchett says.
Virtually every integration project results in some tradeoffs between goals and realities. “Obviously cost, time and risk are the traditional tradeoffs,” Matchett says. “Yet new solutions can bring lower capital and operational expenses, more capabilities, more productivity and more payback toward business goals.” It helps, he adds, when IT leaders come to the table with creative transformational suggestions, rather than simply being asked to maintain, extend and increment legacy solutions.
Major tradeoffs won't be necessary if the solutions being deployed are nimble and elastic, Miles says. “Flexibility needs to be built into the DNA of the solution and the products that comprise it, including support of different types of automation capabilities,” he explains. “This includes the ability to run applications natively on the networking elements themselves, and making the solution simple to bring up, monitor and manage through a single plane of glass.”
Every project will have its pain points, but planning an initiative with the proper software, equipment and support will go a long way toward avoiding and resolving technology deployment problems. “Our industry needs to get to a point where the network is no longer a barrier to the business,” Kiely says. “All too often, the network is the largest speed bump in the road to progress.”
Businesses need to build a solid network foundation that is agile, easily managed and highly scalable. “It is possible to migrate from a legacy environment to a future fabric-based infrastructure that will better serve all concerned,” Kiely says. “IT and the business units must build a consensus around that need and get away from lurching from crisis to crisis on 15- to 20-year-old architectures.”
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