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Commoditization or integration?

Is the network being commoditized? Editor Susan Fogarty offers her view on the issue.

Pundits have been talking about the commoditization of the network and loss of IT focus on network technology in favor of flashy applications. Applications may be fun, and easier to relate to from an executive point of view, but most businesses are beginning to realize the true value of the network. Just a single day of downtime will drive that truth home.

It is true that basic network hardware and components are commodity purchases today. Routers and switches are distinguished by their feature sets, not the underlying technology.

However, the network itself is becoming increasingly complex. Most require constant human supervision and maintenance to run efficiently. Users and customers are more sophisticated and expect instant transactions, making efficient network utilization more important than ever before. Almost all business applications depend on the network, and smart executives realize that the tools and services that the network provides are essential to productivity in their organizations. These factors are extending the role of the network and keeping the value of the network very high.

The specter of commoditization is contributing to what we see as the major networking theme of 2006: integration. In an effort to sell more equipment, vendors have created multifunctional devices that cross technology lines. The 13% increase in the router market this year is partly due to a 17% year-over-year increase in security-enabled routers, says Infonetics Research. Many routers include an IP PBX, and Ethernet switches routinely have wireless LAN capabilities built in. Cisco has launched major initiatives this year that essentially add functionality to their products in the areas of security, wireless, and network and applications management.

Integration is happening on a much larger scale when it comes to the entire IT architecture. Many factors, including mobility, are causing the distinction between public networks and the private corporate network to blur. Voice and data networks are converging, and they are also incorporating wireless. This, in turn, is driving network performance tools that function across the spectrum.

The separation between application development and network operations is breaking down due to trends like service-oriented architecture. Networks are even getting attention in the data center, where advances in network virtualization are allowing IT departments to manage utility and grid computing across multivendor environments. Because of the opportunity the network offers, the disparate disciplines of IT are merging into a unified architecture.

The extension of the network and the integration of other technologies into the network mean that networking professionals must have greater skill and expertise than ever before. Network managers are already becoming much more business savvy in order to translate the business needs of their organizations into the appropriate network architectures. They must understand a wide scope of technologies and all their ramifications in order to create efficient environments at the lowest possible cost.

The increased complexity of enterprise networks will demand that network managers and administrators have in-depth knowledge of security, wireless, voice, application architectures, and network management tools and technologies, in addition to the "basic" networking protocols and technologies.

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