Enterprise Connectivity reflects the fast moving history of computing. So where are we now, and where are we going? In this age of cloud computing, of mission critical applications and 24/7 businesses, data communication has become crucial for enterprise continuity. Today, connectivity needs to fulfill the highest business requirements in the most exotic locations on the globe. The dynamics of development are amazing – but how did it get to this point? Well, it all started with a handful computers.
By Rutger Bevaart, CTO and Dennis Warnar, Global Sales Director
Enterprise computing follows technological and economic trends and developments which range from centralized to distributed, and hybrid approaches. In the 1960’s and 1970’s, IT and rudimentary data communications were something that occurred deep down in the cellars or bunkers of large enterprises and governments. The people walking the streets above having no idea what was being created in the black boxes of IT. Back then, computer terminals were attached to mainframe computers through dedicated data connections. Plus, the exchanged data were highly structured and mainly covered transactions and data records.
In the nineties the downscaling of the mainframe into ‘mini computers’, or servers as we may call those nowadays, opened up the arena of client-server computing. The one-to-a few topology of mainframe computing was expanded to one-to-many via local area networks that were combined into wide area networks covering the large business centers in the world. Connections were mainly private and leased.
Further miniaturizing of computer power into the ‘microcomputer’ or PC gave the client-server approach a tremendous boost, as PC’s could act as terminals to connect to the servers but also to the mainframes (if those were still commissioned that is). It was then that the era of many-to-many started.
People started to exchange e-mails and attach all sort of files to those. But the issue of how to handle and exchange unstructured data (visuals, written texts, and later video and audio) came up, together with bandwidth and storage limitations. Eventually, internet and mobile communications gave this development a huge boost. And today, mainframe computer power has reached the pocket of the consumer in the shape of his smartphone.
That means everything gets connected: every object and individual gives and takes data. Even the dumbest items, such as office chairs, car brake discs or soda bottles are equipped with chips and connectivity. Data is on the flow and on the go. Small, seemingly meaningless data pieces are combined into meaningful information and broken apart again to feed and enrich other information systems.
Globalization is strongly propagated by these developments in IT and communication. The ‘costs’ for opening a business in another country have strongly decreased as information, applications, and communication have become so much easier – and cheaper – to deploy.
The need of the global enterprise for network connections follows the business. Sometimes the enterprise needs connection to a private network and the internet in the most exotic locations – in the jungle, at sea or in politically unstable regions. In many cases like this, it can be hard to find a reliable carrier.
It works the other way around as well. Economic activities follow the available network infrastructures. Where high-quality and high-performance connections are available, data center computing and cloud become a feasible option for enterprise IT, even furthering the speed and ease of expanding businesses globally.
The dimensions of enterprise connectivity
Enterprises have diverse requirements and needs when it comes to digital communication. Datacenter computing cannot live without high-speed connections between the centers, and the connections to the primary business applications must be extremely robust. Plus, cloud and content distribution demands large bandwidths.
The detailed requirements vary by company and then by application – which each require a specific approach to connectivity. These requirements should be thoroughly mapped with the business strategy, as should identifying the requirements which are imposed on the business from outside the company – for example, by legislation. In industries like finance and healthcare, regulators may impose synchronously replicating data or prohibit the storage and data transmission outside the geographical jurisdiction. Therefore, connectivity should support the business strategy and reflect those external factors as well.
With all this in mind, a close look into the business processes of the enterprise is also needed. Connectivity should support frictionless performance of the applications and must be arranged in a way that each application has a managed risk and is cost effective. Storage replication for example, has a different connectivity profile than file sharing, and office applications are less critical than primary business applications such as CRM, ERP and production control. Another example is that the average latency of transatlantic connections of 60-80 ms is fine for office applications, but would not be suitable for synchronously replicating data.
Today, Cloud First and Cloud Only are the primary IT strategies, and they are embraced in the enterprise world. Right now we see high adoption rates in small and medium sized enterprises of Amazon, Google for Work, and Office 365, and in the next few years we’ll see huge acceleration as traction increases and the market matures.
Presumably we will see the same effects that we did in the early years of the internet: that is, once it gets going, the impact will be much greater than anticipated. In the meantime, enterprises are putting more and more mission critical applications in the cloud. The need for high-performance, high-availability connectivity follows pace.
In a cloud environment, the chain is as strong as its weakest link. More often than not, the connection is this ‘weakest link’. That’s because in computing you have to accept the offering of the service provider as-is. And as an enterprise user you therefore depend on the connectivity on the provider’s side of the connection.
Experience shows that cloud providers are very focused on their internal systems and their technology – the offered SLAs mainly cover just that. Connectivity aspects remain underexposed or are not included in the SLA. In other words, you get “guarantees up to the front door.”
Another expectation that has not yet been fulfilled: data traffic running entirely over the internet. The question now is whether this will ever happen. The internet is robust and reliable, but it does not come with guarantees and SLAs. Business critical or extremely privacy-sensitive data traffic will therefore continue to go through private connections. However, the quality of the internet is getting better – so there could be potential. Synchronous communications such as telephone and video conferencing over the internet is now broadly accepted.
The current wave of digitization today reinforces the key role of data connections. And along with that new boom comes the Internet of Things with it’s own network infrastructure and protocols that puts additional demands on communication.
Here, a custom approach is also necessary. Some IoT applications transmit small volumes of data at regular intervals, whereas others like the self-driving car are accompanied by large streams of real-time data that should be safely sent and processed.
Choices to make
What are the variables in networking? Apart from the technology, the choice of connectivity is determined by four parameters: price, bandwidth, latency (delay) and availability. Each situation requiring a specific consideration of the optimal mix.
Due to the increasing complexity of networks, from a risk management perspective and in line with the trend towards outsourcing, enterprises are inclined to source all their communication from one party (one-stop-shop). And they are right, but only so long they make the right choice.
Broadly speaking, in connectivity there are two types of choices: carrier-driven (supply-driven) and carrier-neutral (demand-driven). Enterprises tend to assign one major carrier with the expectation that they provide the best solution. But in many cases, that turns out to be a miscalculation because carriers offer a one-size-fits-all approach to each application.
As we explained earlier, a granular, differentiated network design services the enterprise best. And what’s more, the carrier will ‘push’ its own network connections together with those of their preferred partners in order to maximize the ROI on its infrastructure. But those are often outdated and less suitable for the specific business requirements of the enterprise.
Some carriers implement the one-stop-shop concept even further by also offering data center services, from the so-called carrier hotel. The exploitation of the data center is not a core business for the carrier, and there is a large degree of vendor lock-in in the relationship.
In contrast to all this, the carrier-neutral approach gives the enterprise much more freedom and flexibility in the choice of the network solutions. Competition between the various carriers is fierce, and that has a price decreasing, and innovation boosting effect at the benefit of the customer.
But that doesn’t mean the carrier-neutral approach doesn’t provide the customer with the ease of the one-stop-shop approach. The carrier-neutral network service provider will look into the business requirements of the customer to design and manage a customized infrastructure, not driven by the objective to fill their own network as they don’t have any.
To do this, you need the right mix of cross-connect (direct connect via MPLS), internet and Cloud Exchange. Plus, it should all centrally managed and supported with easy self-service capabilities for customers. Navigating this dynamic landscape can be tricky though, so enterprises need to seek out a carrier neutral provider that is highly experienced.
We’ve come a long way. Enterprises work 24/7, and technological advances never stop either. With enterprises working around the clock, we need to ensure that today’s state of the art solutions can keep up with the innovations of tomorrow. It’s therefore more important than ever for enterprises to stay on top of the developments in connectivity – like the advances in low latency which are breaking speed records all the time.
Connectivity in today’s digital economy is crucial, so it’s also important for connectivity policy to align with business strategy and contribute to solid risk management. A smart approach to connectivity helps save money, maximize the overall availability of IT services, and increases the flexibility of the enterprise.