CIOs and business technology leaders know the old approach to infrastructure, which largely supported internal business operations and systems of record, is not sufficient to carry a serious, customer-focused, business transformation programme.
They know that cloud is the key to creating agile organisations that can respond dynamically to changing markets and changing business opportunities. They understand that fast, secure and stable networks are the bedrock of the digital technologies their organisations will depend on: mobile, social, analytics, as well as Internet of Things (IoT) solutions and most of the collaboration technologies and industry-specific platforms that are emerging. (Accenture Tech Vision)
Yet even though the quality of network infrastructure will be a fundamental determinant of the success of any digital business strategy, networks are often an afterthought in transformation programmes. Consequently, they are also well down the investment priorities, according to Kamran Ikram, senior director for Infrastructure Services in UK and Ireland for Accenture.
“When most people think about their journey to digital, the network is one of the last things they consider,” says Ikram, “yet it is often the one item with the longest lead time and can become the critical path item that has the most impact on performance.”
In part, this is because of the sheer scale of the challenge, particularly for large global organisations. “A typical global 2,000 company will have a vastly complex network infrastructure, often based on ageing, proprietary networking technologies that were not architected for a cloud-based world,” adds Ikram. “They may well operate across thousands of sites in scores of countries, with each site having many different contracts for network-related services and equipment.”
This complexity has arisen for understandable reasons – mergers, acquisitions and divestments have created heterodox networks. Technology advances, the need for alternative systems to ensure security and business continuity, as well as the need to stimulate competition among suppliers, are also factors.
Then there is the simple perception of what is needed to drive forward a digital transformation programme. “If you want to move an e-commerce application to public cloud – AWS or Azure, for example – the initial focus will be on how will this application work?” explains Ikram. “Can it perform, can it scale, what do we need to do to change the code? That is the cool stuff.” Only afterwards, he says, “do teams think, we’ve got to run this as well, haven’t we?”
Software-defined infrastructure, and software-defined networking (SDN) in particular, can do for networks what virtualisation did for server performance and utilisation, argues Ikram. The technology can allow organisations to build and configure networks with the right combination of performance, price, security, and bring order to their complex networking contracts and infrastructure.
Using SDN technology and modifying your business processes to take advantage of it, you can:
- Unlock significant increases in bandwidth, while saving money
- Automate manual network processes to boost agility and speed the time spent setting up new business services
- Improve end-to-end performance between wireless users in their offices and on the go, to their data centres, and out to the cloud
- Lock down the security of the entire network, even out to the cloud, using policies and tools that drive a substantial reduction in risks
Accenture has reshaped its own networks, which serve 400,000 people, using SDN concepts. It has transformed the network infrastructure of both large organisations such as a major banks and medium sized organisations like Towergate Insurance.
The keys to success, according to Ikram, are to try and be carrier and technology agnostic in creating the new network, and to design a flat architecture that allows room to add a software layer on top. Finally, you need to be very clear on how you prove the new network model. “It could be firewall configuration, it could be network alerting. Pick something to prove the software defined ways of working such as automation and scripting, and then start deploying it across rest of the organisation,” says Ikram.
Get the network right and you can take full advantage of cloud services, cloud-based collaboration opportunities and build a platform for digital innovation. Ignore the network and you will end up with network bandwidth bottlenecks, performance issues and security nightmares. The choice is that simple.