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Enterprises that want timely access to industry advancements will have to sever their dependency on vendors for innovation and emulate the practices of cloud service providers running the industry's most automated data center networks.
That's the conclusion of a recent Gartner report, entitled "Look Beyond Network Vendors for Network Innovation." In the document, the research firm argues enterprises should stop following suppliers and invest in the tools used by web-scale data center operators like Facebook, Google and Microsoft. A lot of their in-house networking innovation is available through open source projects.
Making the strategic shift will require hard work. But in two years, companies that are successful could achieve operational efficiencies that will double the number of devices a single administrator can manage today, Gartner said. Enterprises could also reduce expenses by 25% over five years.
"There's a template out there, and the template is the way the big web properties operate," said Andrew Lerner, Gartner analyst and report author. "They're using Linux-based automation tools -- many of them open source. They're building workflows; it's automation by default."
Why can't vendors deliver the best networking innovation
The problem with Arista, Cisco, Juniper Networks and other established networking vendors is they focus on innovating proprietary products, rather than educating customers on open source network automation applications that would save time and money, according to Gartner. Those tools include Ansible, Puppet and Chef.
Despite the availability of those tools, 70% of enterprises continue to configure individual network hardware through the decades-old command-line interface (CLI) -- a reflection of how vendors fail to promote networking innovation outside of their products, Gartner said.
Andrew Lerneranalyst at Gartner
"Network vendors are not driving innovation into the way we operate networks," Lerner said. "If they were, we wouldn't be using manual-based CLIs as the primary interface."
Vendors also put up roadblocks that slow progress toward innovation. An example is Cisco requiring the use of its latest switches to take full advantage of its modern software-defined networking architecture, Application Centric Infrastructure.
"They have created a barrier to entry to unlock some of that innovation," Lerner said.
Innovation-first vendors exist among the newer network suppliers. An example is Cumulus Networks, which provides a Linux-based operating system for switches capable of running software from multiple vendors. Gartner found the majority of its customers were no longer using the CLI as a primary management tool.
What enterprises should do to get the latest networking innovation
Taking personal responsibility for innovation won't be easy for many enterprises. Difficulties will include making the cultural changes needed to work with cutting-edge technologies.
The acceptance of risk is one cultural change. Enterprise network operators are risk-averse, which vendors often blame for the lack of operational innovation in customer data centers.
Gartner acknowledged there is some truth to that claim. Enterprises could take it upon themselves to learn how to use Ansible and Puppet, which has been supported in most data center switches sold over the last three years. Despite the availability of the tools, fewer than 10% of enterprises use them.
To make use of open source technology, enterprises will have to learn how to manage risk, rather than avoid it at all costs. One way to reduce risk is to segment the network into logical building blocks to contain the growing pains of new technology, Gartner said.
Think differently about buying switches
But risk aversion is just one of the drags on innovation. Enterprises also have an outdated buying model that focuses on the speeds and features of the hardware. Instead, they should choose products that support orchestration and automation frameworks.
"This is counter to traditional buying, in which enterprises purchase switches, then, secondarily, determine which tools should manage them," the Gartner report said.
The potential benefits of focusing on automation are substantial. Gartner estimated organizations that automate 70% of network configuration changes will cut the number of unplanned outages by more than half when compared to enterprises that automate less than 30% of those changes.
Finally, enterprises should shift spending toward retraining network operators and away from buying fully integrated, and often proprietary, networking gear. Companies that teach workers how to operate multivendor, software-based open source networking technology can reduce costs by more than 25% in five years, Gartner predicted.
Reaping the benefits of cloud providers' work won't require enterprises to copy their operations. In fact, doing so wouldn't be practical. A cloud service provider running a hyperscale data center makes tens of thousands of network changes a day, which is 100 to 1,000 times more than the typical enterprise.
Nevertheless, if enterprises can mimic from 1% to 10% of the practices in hyperscale data centers, then they can achieve "dramatic improvements in efficiency and agility," Gartner said.