Guest Blog: What is ‘The Network’?

Stu Bailey

The Internet has become as ubiquitous as electricity. When we all talk about "the Internet" we think we’re talking about the complex global TCP/IP network that has permeated our lives, powering our ability to watch cat videos. But the Internet is just a small part (less than 20 percent) of the real network we all use every day. In fact, with intranets and VPNs, machine-to-machine networks, RFID sensors on pallets chirping information to shippers, your network is many orders of magnitude bigger than the Internet.

What is your network really? It is your data, your connections, your choices, all woven into every aspect of your life and work. You create your network every day by interacting with your devices, apps, clouds and social networks. Your network constantly shifts and redefines itself depending on how you’re using it and what you need from it

The network that you create has extraordinary value and meaning, while there is equally interesting value in the way your devices interact with each other on your behalf.

Every network – yours, your doctor’s, the DVLA’s – is unique. An enterprise network is not switches and cables. It is people, data, devices and infrastructure all conspiring together to make things happen – to provide personalised medicine to paediatric cancer patients, to make sure ships safely enter and leave ports of call, to enable global businesses to grow.

Today’s technology industries are massively focused on empowering and enticing the networked business and the networked you. From Verizon to LinkedIn to Google Ads, expanding, informing and building different types of networks is a BIG industry. But what about the network itself? For thirty years the technology industry has thought of the network as a subsystem or plumbing. That kind of thinking is obsolete.

The network is bigger than switches, routers and load balancers that Cisco, Juniper and Brocade sell. It is bigger than the data centre and the Cloud. Existing network providers aren’t set up to see and empower what the network really is: the container and facilitator for all of the intelligence and action of your life and your business.

Networks change instantly, all of the time, unpredictably. What we require now is a radical rethink. How we build, manage and think about our network needs to join us here in the 21st century.

We are standing at the threshold of another massive technology and economic shift, as the entire world demands more and more from networks. For example, a recent study by International Telecommunications Union expects the number of mobile phone accounts to rise from 6 billion to 7.3 billion in 2014, compared with a global population of 7 billion. At the same time, the price of hardware continues to fall, the availability of cheap reliable bandwidth continues to go up and inexpensive ways to access gigantic amounts of data continue to become available. These tectonic plate shifts are transforming the economics of our world and putting immense pressure on our networks to shift with them.

We must radically rethink because managing networks that exponentially scale and constantly change with the existing tools is incredibly complicated and scary. Network engineers trained in the arts of the traditional Internet are so busy trying to scale and manage that there’s no time and breathing space. The truth is no amount of human hands can keep up with the rate of change in the new network. The ratio of people trained in Internet networking arts to the velocity of change is broken for good. It can never be fixed using traditional methods or traditional thinking. They say, "you can’t fight a tidal wave" for a reason.

But, there is another way to scale and manage the tidal wave. The answer is to look at the network differently. The answer is to automate it with a control plane at the centre of a software defined network. What makes a control plane viable is that now, finally, ridiculous amount of computational power are available today to run sophisticated yet affordable software that can scale to manage an exponentially exploding network. What makes the control plane smart is the shrewd use of data analytics. Software and analytics allow network managers to do more, do it faster, and do it without access to an endless supply of highly competent engineers.

Simply put, there is no other choice. Very few companies and almost no individuals can afford to hire the number of engineers it would take to manually scale and manage the network of today using today’s tools. However, it is imperative that everyone has access to a robust, future-proof network. The old model doesn’t offer any sufficient answers. It’s time to embrace the new model and rethink the very definition of the network and how we build and manage it.

In fact, at April’s Open Networking Summit Intel launched something that is as massively disruptive today as the Apple I was in 1976. The Intel Open Network Platform Switch and Server, a low cost programmable network switch, puts the power where it should be – in the software. Moving to commodity hardware in networking, as we’ve done over the last ten years with servers, will redefine the entire ecosystem of networking.

When we embrace this radical change in networking the whole world will change – in the same way the way that low cost PCs and commodity servers redefined the entire mainframe industry before going on to change business and life itself.

The future doesn’t belong to the Internet, or to the traditional networking model. The future belongs to highly scalable, adaptable, software-enabled complex networks. It belongs to the organisations and people that embrace the complexity, beauty and value that the real network has to offer. These organisations will scale and thrive.

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