We are living in a connected world where international competition has never been greater, and Europe, in particular, is at risk of falling behind more aggressive economies. This, and the need for business processes to be both simple and agile, is causing companies to look to information communication technology (ICT) to maintain and improve their competitive edge.
Overture to the digital networked economy
To maximize their chances of survival, companies are employing a multitude of business tactics: breaking down geographical barriers to explore offshore business opportunities; restructuring and consolidating their call centers and data centers around the world; and reassessing their strategies for storage across the enterprise. Yet while such initiatives are essential, the success of highly distributed businesses ultimately hinges on the capacity and efficiency of the global networks over which they run, and on the skill and competence with which they are managed.
Forrester Research analyst Jean-Pierre Garbani emphasises the need for businesses to focus on the quality and management of their networks. He believes that packaged applications have now become so entrenched in the enterprise that they no longer provide companies with competitive advantage. The advantage now lies in how businesses deliver services to the end user. For example, if companies A and B both deploy the same CRM system, they both have access to the same features and benefits. However, if company A's network can increase the availability of that application for its employees and achieve a quicker response time, it will gain the competitive edge.
For companies without the necessary skills, the provision and management of an international network is like being given an entire orchestra to manage without being able to read music. For seamless connectivity, all the components need to work together perfectly. Businesses without the relevant experience will be faced with many questions, such as: What sort of network should I upgrade to, and do I need to upgrade all or only parts of it? Should I build and run the network myself or opt for an outsourced solution?
So, while companies can often see the need for a network that can connect everybody and everything together, easily, securely, reliably and cost-effectively, many see its deployment as a costly and daunting task. What should a company do and what options do they have?
The importance of composition
Let's look first at the technology challenge itself. Following their much-hyped introduction, IP-based networks are indisputably revolutionizing global business communications. This is because IP VPNs are highly flexible, offering any-to-any connectivity and a cost-effective way to increase business agility. They also enable traffic prioritization using differential classes of services, making them an ideal foundation for voice and data convergence.
VoIP) is really the first application to have been run over the data network and is beginning to emerge as a trusted alternative to traditional telephony and an important driver behind the decision by companies to migrate to a converged network. One example of an organization already reaping the benefits of having a single network for all its communications streams is business information company Datamonitor. It recently upgraded its corporate network to a managed Multi Protocol Label Switching (MPLS) VPN for both its voice and data traffic between key sites in the U.K. and U.S. By implementing this managed service, Datamonitor was freed from the need to invest heavily in or run its own infrastructure, and has cut the costs of calls between these sites by 50%.
Furthermore, interest in multimedia communications such as video-to-the-desktop conferencing is growing. We recently commissioned a survey that identified that over 65% of corporate users in the U.K. and Germany now see the time and cost-saving benefits of implementing video-to-the-desktop technology. On a similar note, Gartner analyst Steve Cramoysan predicts that video will be the application that will drive some companies to IP.
However, while IP is taking off, legacy networks such as ATM, Frame Relay and dial-up remain important to many businesses and still have a valued role to play. Therefore companies who have made the switch to IP often face the challenge of integrating these new systems with their tried and trusted networks. In addition, the rise of newer technologies such as broadband and Ethernet are making the corporate connectivity ecosystem even more complex. So, as you can see, just ensuring that the many players in the "orchestra" of network technologies work together in harmony is increasingly challenging.
Fine tuning the network
And if integrating network technologies was not hard enough, businesses now face the challenge of adding new applications to that network. We have surely all experienced the situation where an application which has been installed, tested and found to be fully functioning crashes when users start using it. They complain of poor performance, but the network department cannot find fault with the infrastructure that they believe is behaving as it ought to, so a stalemate begins.
Furthermore, just as great solo musicians may not automatically fit well into an orchestra, there is no guarantee that different networks which perform perfectly in isolation will work well together, or that best-in-class applications will automatically run smoothly over them. Networks and their elements, like musicians, need coordination.
It is this sort of discordant situation that highlights the issue of the two differing perceptions that exist: that of the IT manager in charge of IT systems, and that of the network manager with responsibility for infrastructure. What is needed is someone with the knowledge and tools to bring the two areas together in harmony with a holistic view of service.
Striking the right note
The critical decision over who will implement and manage the network needs to be based on the size, scope and ability of the enterprise. The network needs to match the needs of the company. A company with simple requirements will need a simple network. A company with complex needs either requires a heavy weight IT department or assistance from an expert.
There are essentially three options to choose from: an in-house deployment, a fully outsourced solution, or a managed service, combining elements of the previous two. Any company assessing whether to build and run its own network needs to consider the following:
- Does it have the financial resources to cope with the up-front cost of a company-wide implementation of the network?
- Does it have the necessary technical skills and knowledge of all elements of the network to keep it running?
- Does it have the resources to train the personnel involved and to keep up to date with the developments in technology?
If not, they should call in the help of experts and consider a fully outsourced or managed service. With an outsourced solution, the network provider takes full charge of the network assets so that the client can focus its energy and resources on its core business, reassured that its communications are being supervised and delivered across the globe to the right people at the right time. However, many corporations are unwilling to hand over complete control of their network to a third party and are often more inclined to opt for a managed service option, working with an experienced service provider who works with them to implement, design and manage the network.
Selecting either an outsourced or managed network service provider could well pay dividends. The provider is like the orchestra conductor with an in-depth knowledge of each network component and application, understanding how they can be optimized and brought together into a high-performance unit. With this advanced insight, they can resolve potential problem areas before they arise, allowing companies to enjoy seamless connectivity. As a result, Mexican stand-offs between IT and network managers become a thing of the past.
Maintaining the tempo
As you can see, efficient global networks are key to maintaining competitive edge in today's digital networked economy. Europe risks falling behind if it does not proactively find its place in this era and adopt ICT technologies. The way forward is the effective deployment of converged IP networks. However, unless a company has the resources to effectively implement, run and conduct that converged network, it could risk gambling away its value of that network and negatively impacting business operations. By choosing an outsourced or managed service to keep the converged network in tune, companies can gain real business advantage and keep their global operations running in harmony.
About the author:
Mark Logan is head of VPNs at BT Global Services, BT's international business services and solutions division.