Get your network up, while they're down

As network hardware reaches saturation point, now's the time to pick up a bargain in emerging networking technologies. David Braue examines which innovations you can ignore and which ones your business can't do without.



As network hardware reaches saturation point, now's the time to pick up a bargain in emerging networking technologies. David Braue examines which innovations you can ignore and which ones your business can't do without.

The recent spate of profit warnings, mass layoffs, product rationalisation and strategic restructuring has been like a bucket of cold water thrown on the once-buoyant networking industry. Yet as the industry regroups and searches for a way to recover its lost glory, customers could be the ultimate beneficiaries as a new breed of business solutions brings the promise of more flexible, far-reaching and effective data networks.

It's a change that had to come after what can only be described as deadly efficiency within the networking industry. Fuelled by a rapidly swelling explosion of interest in the Internet, networking companies flooded their customers with products to help their internal networks support all manner of online business applications.

This led to a boom market for the sale of hubs, switches, routers, network interface cards (NICs), and the myriad other components that make up today's networks.

In a word, the networking industry was doing its job too well.

Now that everybody has a network, sales are plummeting. Telecommunications carriers, a core base of loyal customers that who had for years helped networking vendors deliver healthy results, are slowing their spending and tempering once ambitious expansion plans as they face increased competition and tough economic times in their own backyards.

There is no more opportunity for networking vendors to piggyback on the corporate compulsion to upgrade information systems in the face of a threat like the Millennium Bug or the GST. And within the crucial corporate and government spheres, the overall sense of increased fiscal responsibility has seen network upgrades taking a back seat to IT investments that potentially offer a more immediate return on investment (ROI)-within a matter of months.

It may all sound glum, but the industry's current uninspiring state may be the best opportunity in years to get vendors to jump through hoops for you. Just as the focus of networking buying over the past five years has been to bring companies onto the Internet, your focus now should be on laying the framework for a number of emerging technologies that could dramatically improve the way things run on your network. When done right, they can deliver a broad range of benefits-including that six- to twelve-month ROI your manager is now demanding.

Fewer choices, easier planning

Because volume is perhaps the most important driver for bringing prices of IT equipment down, many of the difficult choices that faced network architects years ago are no longer issues. This is because a host of technologies that once competed for networking mindshare-including physical topologies like 4 megabit-per-second (Mbps) Token Ring and 100Mbps FDDI, and transmission protocols like SNA, DEC LAT, NetBIOS, IPX, and others-are now all but extinct.

If you're building a network or upgrading a previous system, odds are that you're going to be using what has become the trinity of corporate networking: 100Mbps Fast Ethernet connections to desktop PCs, 1000MBps Gigabit Ethernet connections between servers, and the IP protocol for data transmission.

The dominance of these standards has come despite repeated predictions that Ethernet had hit the wall several years ago. Necessity, as they say, is the mother of invention, and the industry's need to push down the price of networking equipment inevitably led to a concerted focus on ways of continually extending the Ethernet family. It has even marginalised ATM (Asynchronous Transfer Mode), the onetime heir apparent to Ethernet that has since faded into obscurity as vendors pushed faster, cheaper Gigabit Ethernet LAN equipment into the market.

Gigabit Ethernet now runs quite well over relatively short lengths of standard Category 5 copper cabling, which by now is pervasive in virtually any office building you're likely to inhabit. This means you can use standard and cheap copper wire to interconnect servers and switches, instead of having to fork out for expensive fibre-optic cable and network cards.

Even potentially more helpful, concerted development around Gigabit Ethernet has brought it the ease of use that makes it viable even in smaller offices.

"Businesses can reduce costs up to 40 percent by running Gigabit Ethernet over copper," says Chris Stephens, product manager with struggling networking vendor 3Com, which has pegged much of its hopes for revival on the technology's acceptance and offers network switches supporting 10, 100 and 1000Mbps flavours of Ethernet. "Our whole focus is on simplicity. When you're starting to build networks, the last thing you want is extremely complex solutions. Auto-sensing, auto-configuring networks are key."

Also worth a serious look are wireless networks, which have emerged from their relative niche status to become a viable option in all manner of offices. If your employees often travel into the field and back again-or if they just like to change their work environs every once in a while-wireless networks can get them online whenever they're in the vicinity. Convergence around the IEEE 802.11b (Wi-Fi) standard has ensured compatibility between wireless base stations and the interface cards or antennae now being built into many notebook PCs.

That standard runs at 11Mbps, the speed of early Ethernet networks, but by next year you'll also see the launch of faster 54Mbps wireless LANs based on the 802.11a standard (see www.wirelessethernet.org for more information). Be warned, however: that standard is not compatible with Wi-Fi, so you may want to wait to buy the faster equipment if you need that speed.

The evolution of MAN


While the networking world was busy hotting up Ethernet and turning wireless into a reality, telecommunications carriers were busily crawling around under the streets and paddocks of Australia, laying thousands of kilometres of fibre-optic cable that now make Australia's cities among the most wired in the world.

Use of DWDM (Dense Wavelength Division Multiplexing) technology has allowed carriers to lay multiple strands of fibre, light up just a few of them at relatively low speeds, and bring additional fibres operating at increased density as future technologies allow. This means there is enough potential for bandwidth running over Australian networks to keep up with demand for some time to come.

Just where this demand will come from has long been the subject of considerable speculation, and as carriers evolve their product offerings it's becoming increasingly clear that Web surfing is only the tip of the iceberg. Far more important to businesses in the long run will be the use of those fibre connections to form Metropolitan Area Networks (MANs), which offer scads of bandwidth between branch offices and partners within a city.

Because they rely on a cloud approach to networking that utilises carriers' massive economies of scale, MANs can potentially be more cost-effective on a dollars-per-Mbps basis than current wide-area networks built around bundles of ISDN and Frame Relay links. Their design inherently supports high-speed versions of technologies such as Gigabit Ethernet, which has no problem at all traversing many kilometres of fibre-optic cabling.

With IP firmly established as the protocol of choice over these networks, carriers have fulfilled their once-grandiose vision of providing an "IP dialtone" to customers. Several top-tier carriers already offer bandwidth-on-demand services that deliver anywhere from 10Mbps to 1000Mbps of an IP dialtone to your wall. Fibre-based MANs have even provided a reprieve for ATM, which persists as an IP transport mechanism within many carrier backbones and is available from some telcos in 155Mbps and 622Mbps flavours.

Although they're obviously indispensable as a way of providing fast connections between branch offices, the lightning speed of MANs will really come into its own as companies become more creative in the ways they utilise the capacity.

Key among these new uses will be the ability to distribute parts of the network that have traditionally been kept on local area networks because of their demand for extremely fast transmission speed.

Using Fibre Channel over an IP-based MAN, for example, it's possible to build a storage area network (SAN) that links branch-office networks with storage farms in a remote location. This would ease centralisation of corporate data and allow for increased fault resilience, particularly through thetip of the iceberg. Far more important to businesses in the long run will be the use of those fibre connections to form Metropolitan Area Networks (MANs), which offer scads of bandwidth between branch offices and partners within a city.

Because they rely on a cloud approach to networking that utilises carriers' massive economies of scale, MANs can potentially be more cost-effective on a dollars-per-Mbps basis than current wide-area networks built around bundles of ISDN and Frame Relay links. Their design inherently supports high-speed versions of technologies such as Gigabit Ethernet, which has no problem at all traversing many kilometres of fibre-optic cabling.

With IP firmly established as the protocol of choice over these networks, carriers have fulfilled their once-grandiose vision of providing an "IP dialtone" to customers. Several top-tier carriers already offer bandwidth-on-demand services that deliver anywhere from 10Mbps to 1000Mbps of an IP dialtone to your wall. Fibre-based MANs have even provided a reprieve for ATM, which persists as an IP transport mechanism within many carrier backbones and is available from some telcos in 155Mbps and 622Mbps flavours.

Although they're obviously indispensable as a way of providing fast connections between branch offices, the lightning speed of MANs will really come into its own as companies become more creative in the ways they utilise the capacity.

Key among these new uses will be the ability to distribute parts of the network that have traditionally been kept on local area networks because of their demand for extremely fast transmission speed.

Using Fibre Channel over an IP-based MAN, for example, it's possible to build a storage area network (SAN) that links branch-office networks with storage farms in a remote location. This would ease centralisation of corporate data and allow for increased fault resilience, particularly through the mirroring of the database to similar servers at a physically distant third site. In the case of service disruption, all MAN-connected branch offices could easily switch to the backup storage array using the same fibre links.

"This means the tyranny of distance within a city potentially goes away completely," says Andrew Cox, director of emerging technologies and services with wholesale bandwidth provider COMindico, which launched its nationwide IP services network in October.

MANs will allow companies to centralise application servers without incurring the performance hit they currently absorb when squeezing applications over relatively small WAN pipes. Although thin-client delivery systems such as Citrix Metaframe have ameliorated this problem somewhat, network-speed MANs will remove the artificial boundaries between LAN and WAN, allowing even fat client applications to thrive.

Further adoption of MANs will eventually allow you to completely eliminate workgroup servers from your network. Instead of traditional hub-and-spoke network designs, individual desktops or wireless base stations will be connected to a central office switch that steers their traffic directly onto the MAN. From there, it will be shuttled directly to the centralised application servers, providing a direct conduit to a variety of application services.

Of course, those services don't even need to be running within the company's own network. Given the ubiquity of IP, it's just as easy for those services to be maintained by a third party. That's the gist of e-services initiatives from companies like IBM, Hewlett-Packard, and Telstra, which recently opened up a massive data centre in Melbourne to support its online services push.

"If you can make the applications work together, you can create a whole which is greater than the sum of the parts," says Cox, who anticipates strong demand for MAN-based collaboration, unified messaging, and virtual private networks.

He even believes MANs could breathe life into the ailing application service provider (ASP) sector, which has struggled to validate its existence in the face of customer hesitance over performance and management concerns.

"It's hard for an ASP business to get started because it has to justify the cost of connectivity to each customer," he explains. "Ubiquitous connectivity and interoperability [through a MAN] will even make the cost of this justifiable to a small business, who would find the benefits sufficient to justify a 2Mbps pipe from their network to ours. Once they have that pipe, they could outsource their messaging [or application] network and get credible performance."

MANs can also remove much of the uncertainty that's accompanied bandwidth planning in the past. Since carriers offer bandwidth on demand, you no longer have to purchase bandwidth pipes based on usage projections that turn out to be hopelessly inaccurate down the road. You could potentially set a committed bandwidth rate at Ethernet speeds, then crank it up to Gigabit Ethernet to hasten the nightly transfer of data to your remote backup site for archiving.

The many possible uses for MANs have seen carriers and network equipment vendors alike latch onto the concept as a potential saviour for revenues that have been positively anaemic during most of this year. Having realised that spending hundreds of millions of dollars to lay glass strands in the ground isn't a business model of its own, they've recently embarked on a flurry of creativity that should ultimately result in a bevy of new services.

Metropolitan area networking will be further boosted by the development of 10G Ethernet, the next stage in the Ethernet legacy, which promises to further supplant ATM within carrier networks by providing ten times as much bandwidth over fibre MAN links. Look for 10G Ethernet products to hit the market next year, with telco service offerings based on the technology by 2003 or so.

Get on the line

MANs are still evolving, and many of the carrier-hosted services they will enable are only likely to hit the market next year. In the meantime, equipment vendors and integrators alike say one of their biggest revenue spinners in the short term is coming from the implementation of Voice over IP (VoIP), that long-emerging standard that just a few years ago threatened carriers so much they tried to have it banned.

VoIP has grown up considerably from its early days as an Internet novelty. Its high-quality compression allows perfectly acceptable voice conversations to be transmitted over what is typically between 4Kbps and 8Kbps of bandwidth. That's low enough to allow dozens or hundreds of calls to be carried over existing networks without incurring much of a performance hit, and today's networking gear is bristling with voice gateways that simplify the process of adding voice to your network.

"More and more, we're seeing that media-rich applications are giving organisations the productivity and they are looking for," says Roland Chia, chief technology officer of multi services networking with systems integrator Dimension Data, who reports significant interest in VoIP among the company's longtime clients.

In early implementations, VoIP was set up as a method for allowing suitably equipped PABX replacements to shuttle calls over IP networks to other branch offices or gateways that drop them off into the public switched telephony network within the city of its destination. By allowing companies to avoid sending their calls over expensive STD loops in the conventional network, VoIP used in this manner can provide for significant savings (50 percent or more is not uncommon, depending on calling patterns). It's also relatively cheap because it only replaces the inter-PABX links, while leaving existing handsets to function as normal.

Where this approach falls over, however, is in its reliance upon maintaining separate telephony and data networks within the office. Each of those networks requires its own team of experts and has its own maintenance requirements, a fact that has led many companies to take VoIP further into their hearts.

These organisations are working to do away with telephony networks altogether by installing IP-enabled handsets that act like any other network node. These handsets offer similar features to conventional phones-such as call forwarding, voicemail, conference calling, and the like. However, they are little more than terminals interfacing with a data-enabled PABX replacement, which is often simply a Windows NT or 2000 server running specialised software and telephony network interfaces. With voice-enabled network switches now common, these devices can also replace the dedicated server with their dedicated voice call routing capabilities.

Savings from VoIP are demonstrable and considerable. The State Library of Victoria, for one, recently implemented a converged voice and data network that it expects will save over $100,000 a year in maintenance costs, while the CSIRO-Australia's largest VoIP user-anticipates savings several times as large after rolling out nearly 10,000 VoIP handsets. Savings come not only from a reduction in call costs, but from the reduction in management effort and the eventual elimination of a dedicated team of telephony network specialists. "We've done this so many times already, and we're getting better each time," says Chia. "If you just plan for pure and simple IP data, ignoring voice and data, you'll face an expensive upgrade down the road. These applications, along with applications such as data-enabled call centres and unified messaging, will deliver competitive advantages that are going to drive the business case, pure and simple."

With convergence between voice and data now well established as a cost-cutting measure, now is the time for you to begin looking into VoIP, if you haven't done so already. Its relatively easy implementation and rapid cost savings make it an ideal candidate for implementation during harsh economic times, and its long-term benefits mean it should be high on your list.

Voice isn't the only multimedia application gaining currency on Australia's networks. Large amounts of available bandwidth-particularly in the wide area-have made quality of service concerns less of an issue than they used to be, since sheer bandwidth can potentially deliver data so fast that service guarantees become less of a concern. This means videoconferencing is more practical than ever, both through standalone room units and through sub-$100 desktop cameras.

Interestingly enough, videoconferencing outsourcers have reported record bookings in the months since the September 11 terrorist attacks. Videoconferencing also allows for richer communication by conveying body language as well as voice. It also allows companies to eliminate the substantial expense of airfares, hotels, car rental, and the other costs of face-to-face meetings. Talk with your travel co-ordinator before taking a videoconferencing business case to the board, and you'll be surprised how much their eyes light up.

Making your life easier


Networking technology may have lost some of its glamour after the recent slump in the IT industry, but networks are nonetheless more important than ever before. And with much of the technological work of recent years now embodied in real-life products, an ever-broader array of choices has once more made investing in a network a strong imperative.

As businesses continue to move their operations into the world of e-business, networks will continue to gain in strategic importance both as conduits for information within an organisation, and enablers to link the business to the world via the Net. And even though IT budgets may be showing signs of malaise right now, prudent planners will take this time to regroup and plot long-term strategies for online business services.

More and more often, these strategies will incorporate some element of outsourcing. While you may have dabbled in outsourcing in the past, the all-or-nothing approach championed during the late 1990s has given way to a more measured effort in which service providers take on responsibility for specific parts of your network.

Any number of companies, for example, are now happy to take on the responsibility of monitoring your network for faults and responding to those faults as quickly as possible. This can not only relieve you of the burden of chasing up vendors for support, but can reduce your ongoing costs by obviating the need to maintain a 24-hour roster of in-house technical specialists.

Other technology areas getting attention from service providers include virtual private networks, extranets, Web hosting, procurement, VoIP services, and just about anything else you're willing to pay for.

"As much as possible, we're trying to take everything away from the customer, including the management services," says Christophe Bur, director of products with Optus Business, which offers a variety of managed data services over its own expanding IP network.

"Managing very reliable networks is what a carrier does for a living, and we're in a position to overcome customers' natural fear of handing networks over to just anybody. We have the technology, know how to do integration pretty well, and we're ideally positioned to do that for customers."

So why not take advantage of it? By combining today's managed services with the right technologies to deliver rapid business benefits, you can provide important new services that expand the capabilities of your growing network. Find the right services to improve your business, and the next time you're facing up a front boardroom table full of executives asking "what will this do for us?", you'll have an answer you can take to the bank.

Eight tips for successful networking


  1. Go with the flow. Ethernet and IP have become the de facto networking standards for a reason: they're cheap and capable.

  2. Be redundant. The September 11 terrorist attacks caused the loss of several billions of dollars' worth of IT equipment, along with inconceivable amounts of crucial business data.

    If your business depends on data-and whose doesn't?-it's a good idea to review and potentially improve the ability of your network and storage systems to survive unforeseen disruptions.

  3. Let your voice be heard. And your face be seen. Voice over IP and videoconferencing are now more than possible using inexpensive hardware and software. If your STD bill causes your stomach to churn each month, consider ways in which running voice and video over your network can trim costs.

  4. Sleep in. If you've ever been woken at 3am to fix a downed router, you'll appreciate just how useful third-party managed services can be. Telecommunications carriers and service providers have been rushing to take on the hassle of watching your network and responding in the event of a crisis, so let them. As long as you've set up a good service level agreement, you even get the pleasure of blaming someone else if things aren't fixed quickly.

  5. Shop around. Vendors are in a bit of a difficult financial situation these days, and you may be able to use this to your advantage to negotiate more favourable pricing or purchasing terms.

  6. Pull the plug. Wireless networks are faster and more robust than ever, and should be high on your shopping list if you have a highly mobile workforce or just want to eliminate wiring dramas.

  7. Distribute. With high-speed metropolitan area networks now coming into their own, it's possible to centralise storage and application servers for offices within the same city, and to outsource these and other applications to third parties.

  8. Use the Net. It's not just for surfing anymore. With the right tools, the Net can become a major part of your network infrastructure. Virtual private networks, Voice over IP, videoconferencing, rented applications and even outsourced storage systems can all turbo-charge your company network.

Key technologies


Ethernet
The de facto standard for wired networking. Well established in 10Mbps and 100Mbps over copper varieties for LANs, also used in 1Gpbs over fibre or copper to interconnect servers. 10Gbps over fibre products expected in 2002, telcos expected to offer 10Gbps over fibre connections by 2003.

DWDM
Dense Wavelength Division Multiplexing, a technology allowing large numbers of data streams to be carried over a single optical fibre, considerably increasing the capacity of optical fibre thus vastly improving the capacity of optical networks. The use of DWDM in city-wide optical networks paves the way for Metropolitan Area Network (MAN) offerings from telcos.

iSCSI and FC/IP
Internet SCSI and Fibre Channel over IP are two new technologies expected to be ratified by the end of 2001, which allow storage hardware to transmit data over the IP protocol, allowing it to be sent over much longer distances for communication between SAN devices over LAN or WAN links. While FC/IP still requires a dedicated FC connection, iSCSI can operate over standard Ethernet networks.

TCP/IP offload engines
If processing TCP/IP takes 1 processor cycle for every bps, then a 1GHz processor would be completely swamped processing a 1Gbps connection. In order to meet the performance requirements of IP-based SANs using technologies such as iSCSI and FC/IP, hardware vendors are now starting to offload this processing task onto the network interface cards, which include a TCP/IP Offload Engine (TOE), or basically an IP stack on a chip

ATM
Asynchronous Transfer Mode, once thought of as a competitor to Ethernet, is now increasingly marginalised into niche applications. The most common of these is as a transport mechanism for IP over carrier backbones.

MANs
Taking advantage of telcos' extensive intra-city optical fibre networks, and the extra bandwidth provided by DWDM, Metropolitan Area Networks (MANs) allow businesses to connect geographically disparate locations within the same city together at bandwidths approaching those of LANs.

VoIP
Using IP networks to carry voice as well as data, applying compression techniques, can reduce costs by reducing or eliminating the reliance on expensive long-distance calls. However, a greater saving may be found in the long term by creating unified voice and data environments, eliminating the need for a separate telephone network entirely.

Wi-fi (802.11b)
This standard for interoperable wireless networking has been accepted by almost all the major manufacturers, and is now a viable option for many office environments. The 802.11a standard expected next year would boost wireless speeds from 11Mbps to 54Mbps, making it a serious competitor to 100Mbps wired Ethernet.

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