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Can Netflix save enterprise WAN networks?

How long will it take for ISPs to come to enterprises and ask them to pay extra to ensure that their data gets to where it's supposed to go?

There's a possibility that Netflix just might save the Internet as we know it, and as an incidental side effect, keep our enterprise WAN networks running smoothly.

At home, network admins stand in unison with other residential customers on net neutrality and un-coerced peer/transit relationships. But at the office, we also understand that pay-to-play quality of experience might be a competitive advantage to our employers under specific circumstances. The reality is that new FCC action will not promote the general welfare or increase opportunity. A market-led transfer of content authority, however, might re-level the field, benefitting everyone. What's the benefit to enterprise connectivity if Netflix becomes the monster HBO was in the 1990s?

Ask an admin: demand drives authority

Anyone in the trenches of IT who's attempted to proactively manage investment can attest to the influence of demand.  Back in the day, file sharing was king and we built out large block transfer optimized LANs with local-ish servers.  Next, we re-balanced networks for the Internet, taught ourselves firewalls, then mixed wireless and VoIP and fought the persistent devil of jitter (one can reasonably claim we're still trying to sort that out on mixed traffic links).

Now, we're leaning more heavily on our WAN links than ever before, with more and more mission-critical services moving to software as a service and cloud.  And, of course, we're doing all of that in the most perilous security environment we've ever faced.

Though we think of our 'wide open' enterprise WAN links as immune, they too are the result of ISPs' benevolence.

At every stage, it was demand that selected the top top priority from a long list of near top issues.  Service demands have directed investment from desktops and printers to LANs, from servers to virtualization, and from disks to solid-state drives.  And the important note here is that demand isn't simply driving influence --it carries real authority.  It drives strategy and budget and team alignment simultaneously to the highest executive levels with little tendency for hindsight.  You can track demand on a chart, and remember, managers love charts.

Déjà vu, for great justice

Once upon a time, HBO was a struggling upstart. It wasn't an original content powerhouse, it had a limited schedule of broadcast hours and there was no on-demand library. In those days, it was in many ways a symbiotic cable network parasite, increasing demand for cable, but still in many ways acting at the direction of the cable companies.

But HBO's authority dominated once its new portfolio of related properties became "the get" for cable and satellite networks. HBO could largely dictate its terms to networks.  Have you ever seen a cable operator drop HBO like it threatens to do with Disney-ABC or NBCUniversal?  Never.  Subscribers would switch providers. Quality of delivery (bandwidth) swung in HBO's favor because its highly desired content became the heart of cable, and bundled 300 channels of noise.

This year, for the first time, Netflix's revenue became approximately even with HBO.  Of course, the last-mile bandwidth providers screamed bloody murder, throttled and otherwise extorted special access fees --internet fast lanes --  in practice if not name.  With a taste for blood, Verizon threatened to sue the government even as AT&T said it will pick up its marbles and go home. But a sea change in authority is fast approaching. When Netflix--and to some extent IP-only HBO GO—is an undisputed destination content provider regardless of network, it will have the same authority HBO had over the cable providers.

Imagine any cable operator trying to deny fair access to a content provider 80% of its customers expect to access without an additional fee.  That content provider might pop up a screen that says, “This television provider isn’t the best partner for us” and cord-cutting customers would likely drop the operator like a hot rock for an alternate way to get access. That's real authority, the kind that drives openness, regardless of FCC rules.  And for an ever-increasing, service delivery-focused enterprise IT, that's great news.

'Gentlemen' require observation

These fertile years of neutrality and innovation have largely been a gentlemen's agreement, especially in peering. Though we think of our wide open enterprise WAN links as immune, they too are the result of ISPs' benevolence.  Sure, we carefully monitor the performance of our critical network links to the world, gather historical supporting evidence to fight service level agreement battles and manage application performance around increasingly dislocated service tiers. But here's the reality: Should residential traffic shaping and tiered service generate substantial revenue for ISPs, it's only a matter of time before they turn their attention to our links. Laws and regulations seem to bend sympathetically.

If content providers shut down this experiment before it begins, or if Netflix and others gain real authority by becoming ubiquitous, must-have services, ISPs will have to find another source of revenue other than double charging for bandwidth.  If all goes well, you'll never have to deal with the following phone call from your ISP rep:

"Hiya. That sure is a nice Salesforce implementation you've got there. Be a shame if anything were to happen to it. Yeah, see we've got this new Salesforce Insurance Plan™.  You pay us a small monthly fee and we see to it that there's no problem."

About the author:
Patrick Hubbard is a head geek and senior technical product marketing manager at SolarWinds. With 20 years of technical expertise and IT customer perspective, his networking management experience includes work with campus, data center, storage networks, VoIP and virtualization, with a focus on application and service delivery in both Fortune 500 companies and startups in high tech, transportation, financial services and telecom industries. He can be reached at

This was last published in December 2014

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