Posted by: Greg Ness | April 15, 2009

A Tale of Two Networks

Cloud computing and virtualization are driving new forms of IT, new requirements for vendors and new career possibilities.  Today more than ever, legacy tools, investments and tactics are introducing ever-increasing risks.  The race between enterprises who automate their network and those who rely increasingly on operations spend may ultimately be settled by standards set by external IT service providers, some of whom today may be virtually unknown entities.


We saw a similar effect a few years ago when browsers impacted the access and delivery of enterprise applications once architected for LANs.  New demands drove new technology innovation and enterprise apps were supplemented with web front ends and then application front ends started replacing load balancers because of their up stack (layer 4-7) intelligence.


In the same way that the browser drove new expectations for the delivery of enterprise applications, the cloud will shape expectations (at a minimum) for the delivery of IT services.  Those who attempt to fight off cloud with outdated tools, processes and labor-intensive configuration tactics will ultimately face ever more difficult tradeoffs between “which lights to leave on” and which can no longer be lit.


There are a multitude of historic precedents for the equivalent impact of cloud computing on IT.  One of my favorites comes from economic history:


Centuries ago the rise of oceanic shipping sucked the revenue out of a once-powerful string of empires in Asia and the Middle East who had monetized overland trade routes with layers of checkpoints and transport (security) requirements thanks to the lucrative demand for spices in Europe.  The merchant ship with mobile crew decoupled trade from the legacy (land) routes and transport requirements of the day and, in turn, set in motion monumental shifts in wealth, economic growth and military power.



Hunters for gold or pursuers of fame, they all had gone out on that stream, bearing the sword, and often the torch, messengers of the might within the land, bearers of a spark from the sacred fire. What greatness had not floated on the ebb of that river into the mystery of an unknown earth! . . . The dreams of men, the seed of commonwealths, the germs of empires.

– Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness


Yes, there are still technological barriers to the most significant disruption being introduced by virtualization (VMotion, that is), from security to storage and, of course the throughput, dynamic database, and application delivery requirements tied to the network.  To those who sit comfortably in the dying status quo of static networks and their required armies of configuration clerks I will say: The ships are being built that will leave you waiting for ever sparser and ever poorer caravans.


The Re-emergence of the Network is Inevitable


The network becomes a critical enabler of cloud computing; it’s the difference between trade winds and storms for the massive system and endpoint mobility potentials soon to be unleashed by the likes of VMware, Cisco, F5 Networks, Microsoft, Intel and a host of other legacy players strategically positioned by core strengths, intellectual property and customer bases.  They are all under increasing pressure to transform IT from within before players like Google, Amazon and others transform it from the outside.


Perhaps some of the traditional vendors will also become service providers as the legacy lines between solutions, providers and networks blur into various kinds of cloud formations.  Competitors become allies and allies become competitors in the new helter skelter world of “do you know where your server is?”  There is the network and whatever is behind it.  That is the cloud.


With cloud also comes the threat of new competitors like those players now delivering thin apps in cloud-like environments (the telecom service providers).  Will phone technology, especially when it comes to semiconductors, eventually lead the development of new cloud applications and new specialized cloud chips in enhanced netbooks? 


Lines blur between traditionally well-defined markets and channels because they can.  Yet the network is the common denominator; it is the entry point, like Conrad’s Thames for the first truly global empire.


The ascendance of the netbook computer means disproportionately more traffic-rich endpoints using more communications across the network and less across the motherboard.  Repeat after me (and with cowbell): The network is the netbook’s mother of all motherboards.



The Netbook will Depend on the Network


Deploying dynamic infrastructure or Infrastructure 2.0 is not an if but rather a when; as each year that passes with a static network means rising costs, escalating risk and increasingly taxed bureaucracies working from manually updated spreadsheets and checklists for even the simplest tasks.  The illusion of safety in numbers when it comes to managing a network is about to dissipate in an economic and technology-driven tempest of rising demands and falling capabilities.


Every network vendor who gets this is scrambling to embrace automation from the core to the edge.  The people power IT budgets in the West and Japan are for the most part tapped, and the market for static infrastructure is likely to shift to low labor cost markets while higher labor cost markets embrace automation.  Think of it as a kind of tale of two networks, one where legacies and dogma can live on a bit longer simply because they can; while the challenges of competition and rising input costs force a necessary evolution in the other.


Those network vendors who refuse automation and embrace the continuity of static infrastructure will have to eventually fight companies like Huawei (and/or others) now building empires in offshore markets for an eventual assault on new technology export markets.  Growth and margins will become more challenging every quarter as static technologies chase lower input costs in ever smaller corners of the globe.


In this classic struggle between innovation and tired bureaucracy market forces ultimately find a way to sweep away lethargy and dogma, despite the best intentions of policymakers and protectionists.  The new, strategic network becomes an ocean of opportunity for those who learn to navigate it the most effectively.  Navigation becomes ever more strategic to the delivery of applications between clouds of moving targets.


Navigation is Everything: The DNS, DHCP, IPAM Revolution


This growing realization has fueled new solution categories automating and leveraging the now strategic core network service databases that help to guide traffic, including DNS appliances, IP address management appliances, as well as policy automation appliances, and hosts of cloud management software offerings. Disclosure: My employer, Infoblox, offers some of these critical IPAM and DNS/DHCP automation technologies.


Like the evolution of the octant to the sextant, the increasingly strategic and complex network has forced IT teams to look at new tools that increase the productivity of the chores at the core of their enterprise, that involve how traffic is directed over an increasingly fluid infrastructure.  Those tools have gone from being curiosities to necessities as budgets unwind and networks continue to grow and per unit management costs climb.



These dedicated appliances will dynamically connect endpoints, systems and networks with dynamic, automated databases to help maintain order and proper policy enforcement as complexity and mobility increases.  They will become strategic to the fortunes of vendors and customers.



Looking Forward from a Network Perspective


These dynamic navigational tools are the first layer of a dynamic infrastructure as they automate the manual processes that today add delay, expense and availability risk to a network. 


The second layer may likely include an array of new solutions built around the new intelligent network, including automated network and endpoint discovery, IF-MAP and dynamic traffic policy optimization as well as more powerful dynamic application layer security solutions.  On the way to make things even larger and more complex, IPv6 will also give us even more IP addresses to manage. 


More blurry lines, more dynamism, more threats and more potentials. To distort a famous Hunter Thompson quote in order to make a point: “When the network becomes strategic, the strategic become pro.”



You can get my thoughts in real-time at I’ll also be moderating a cloud panel on May 18 at Interop and a dynamic infrastructure panel at Future in Review.  If you’re attending either event feel free to stop by and say hello.  Or you can simply join the conversation here.


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