Why the network is dead
We need a radical rethink of how we should build, manage and consider our network needs
The Internet permeates our lives, a complex global TCP/IP network that we take for granted whether we use it for shopping, for research, or for watching funny cat videos. However, look closer and you’ll see that the Internet is responsible for less than 20% of the real network that we all use every day.
Indeed, when you take into account a world of intranets, machine-to-machine networks, RFID sensors chirping information between pallets and shippers, and even robots tweeting each other, it’s clear that your network is vastly bigger than the Internet itself.
It will constantly shift and redefine itself depending on how you’re using it, what you need from it, and the new information that comes into it, teaching it to behave differently for you. This network that you’ve created, and the way that your devices interact with each other on your behalf, offer significant value and meaning to others.
Whether it’s your own, your doctor’s, or that of the NHS, each network is unique. And enterprise networks are no exception. Rather than being made up of switches and cables, they’re comprised of the people, data, devices and infrastructure that conspire together to make things happen. These are the networks that provide personalised medicine to paediatric cancer patients that make sure ships safely enter and leave ports of call, and enable global business to grow.
Knowing this, one of the prime focuses for today’s technology industries is to empower and entice both the networked business and the networked you — they watch, participate in, and try to control your networks. Expanding, informing and building different types of networks is big business for Verizon, LinkedIn, and Google Ads to name but a few.
So what makes up the network itself? For decades now, the network has been perceived by the technology industry as a subsystem, or as plumbing; a perception that is now outdated and obsolete.
I’d suggest that it’s now time to consider the network as being so much more than the switches, routers and load balancers sold by the likes of Cisco, Juniper and Brocade; more than the Cloud and the data centre. And I believe that existing network providers aren’t in a position to see and empower the network as it really is — a means of containing and facilitating all of the intelligence and action entwined within your life and your business.
Networks will change instantly and unpredictably, all of the time, so we need a radical rethink of how we should build, manage and consider our network needs so that they can join us here, today, in the 21st century.
We’re facing a massive shift in technology and economics as the world demands ever more from its networks.
A recent study by International Telecommunications Union, for example, predicts that the number of mobile phone accounts will rise from 6 billion today to 7.3 billion next year. And, while this demand rises, the price of hardware will continue to fall, cheap and reliable bandwidth will become more widely available, and there’ll be increasingly less expensive ways to access vast amounts of data. The economics of our world are shifting as a result, and our networks are feeling immense pressure to shift with them.
It is hugely complicated, not to mention a little scary, using existing tools to manage networks as they exponentially scale. Network engineers with years of experience in the traditional internet are now finding themselves so busy trying to scale and manage this growth that they have no time or room to breathe. Human hands can no longer keep up with the rate of change required by the new network. The ratio of networking professionals to the velocity of change is now forever broken and neither traditional methods not traditional thinking can repair it.
But, by looking at the network differently, there are other ways to scale and manage these new demands. First, it’s now possible to measure a network’s complexity. Tapestry, a piece of open source software freely available from FlowForwarding.org, uses network data to calculate a Network Complexity Index. This enables IT teams to plan for network growth and reduce the costs that are typically associated with increasing complexity. Ultimately, taking such measurements can save time, money and precious resources by employing different technologies and strategies.
One such strategy relies on automation with a control plane at the heart of a software-defined network.
A control plane is viable due to the vast amount of computational power now available to run sophisticated and affordable software that can scale in order to manage an exponentially expanding network. The right software in the control plane, combined with shrewd use of data analytics will allow network managers to do more, faster, and without the need for an endless supply of engineers.
Businesses need access to a robust, future-proof network, but to hire the number of engineers required to manually scale and manage today’s networks with today’s tools would be beyond the budget of most companies and nearly all individuals, so there really is no other option.
We can no longer rely on the traditional model for answers, so now is the time to embrace the new model, rethinking our definition of the network and how we build and manage it.
At the Open Networking Summit earlier this year, Intel launched its Open Network Platform Switch and Server, a technology as hugely disruptive as the Apple I was almost 40 years ago. A low-cost programmable network switch, Intel’s new technology puts the power in the software, where it should be.
A move to commodity hardware in networking, as has happened with servers over the last ten years, will redefine the entire ecosystem of networking.
Low cost PCs and commodity servers caused the entire mainframe industry to be redefined before going on to change business and life itself. And in the same way, by embracing this radical change in networking, we’ll see the whole world change again.
As we’ve seen, the future of networks doesn’t lie in the Internet. Instead, it belongs to the new, highly scalable, adaptable, software-enabled complex networks. The people and organisations that will scale and thrive are those that embrace the complexity, the beauty and the value that the real network has to offer.