"Web 2.0 creep" going on inside the corporate firewall is challenging enterprise networks to handle the real-time demands and bursty nature of the latest collaboration and social networking software, according to IT executives attending Interop.
Others at the conference say they don't deny the popularity of social networking software but question its role in the workplace and value to the bottom line.
Cisco CEO John Chambers set the tone at Interop in his keynote, when he said that Web 2.0 software such as blogs, chat, Web video and other tools, have "been a way that people kind of communicated in spite of the IT department" inside large organizations. "Now the IT department has to lead," he added.
Much of the network gear on display from Interop's 475 exhibitors focused on squeezing latency out of network traffic or boosting bandwidth for corporate applications. Foundry introduced a switch and switch software it claims can provide millisecond failover and protect Web-based applications from latency. Nortel also entered the market for speeding up Web traffic with new acceleration gear. Cisco and Force10 each showed their switch gear announced earlier this month aimed at handling more peer-to-peer user traffic, instead of the traditional client/server flows from LAN edge to the core and data center.
"Web 2.0, collaboration and so forth -- we've been pushing it hugely inside our company since 2000," said Dave Manser, network director for Boeing's LabNet network. LabNet, a subset of the larger Boeing corporate IT/network group, connects more than 700 of the aerospace company's laboratories worldwide using an array of real-time technologies; VOIP, instant messaging (IM), real-time video and digital whiteboarding are some of the tools engineers use to collaborate on projects. One example is testing of the company's 787 aircraft, which involved a wind tunnel facility in England, streaming video, real-time telemetry, voice and two-way text chat to Boeing sites in Seattle and other locations.
The challenge, Manser said, is tuning the network to deliver real-time voice, video and data to the point where users feel comfortable with the technology and are more productive using it. Manser says it comes down to latency: "How do you wring those last tenths of a second of delay out of the environment and do it in real time?"
Overbuilding the network is one tactic, he said. Boeing's LabNet -- which spans campus LANs, metropolitan Ethernet and an MPLS WAN -- is built so that no link exceeds 50 percent utilization. Manser also uses technologies such as forward error correction and advanced traffic-buffering schemes. But most important is not letting in-house software developers take the network for granted.
"I and my team are perfect examples of the Layer 2-4 guys who are looking up at the whole stack, and we're engaging the software engineering community at real close range. We're saying, your applications will be tested early on in the alpha stage, not even the beta stage."
The productivity value of Web 2.0 technology is being examined by chemical giant DuPont, where the network team is finding itself taking on new roles beyond managing LAN ports, and managing QoS and service-level agreements.
"Network people no longer just have to worry about building a LAN to connect printers and servers," says Tom Marcin, director of global telecommunications at DuPont, who spoke at an Interop panel on convergence. "We're now being asked to build social networks and self-forming networks to solve business problems. We're expected to transform businesses. But guess what, we're expected to reduce costs."
Younger employees may enjoy collaboration software and tools, but the bottom-line payback of such technology trumps any feel-good factor it may bring.
"Collaboration tools are of value to us. But we can't sell a project on migrating 60,000 employees, based upon the soft benefits associated with it," Marcin says. "I need to show demonstrable savings directly linked to the solution we put in. One month of data on a pilot would not cut it."
Financial services company T. Rowe Price is embracing Web 2.0-style applications, from wikis to blogs and widespread use of IM and chat applications. But the enterprise points to measurable productivity gains these tools give its customer call center.
"If a call comes in and you get a question on an IRA, that info has to be accurate and findable in a few seconds," said Kirk Kness, vice president of innovation at T. Rowe Price, during a presentation on his company's Web 2.0 initiatives. He said valuable data was stored in an intranet portal in the past, but the system was hard to use and difficult to search.
The company uses Confluence enterprise wiki software from Atlassian, which allows users at all levels of expertise to add searchable tags and comments to the complex library of documentation and policies associates use to give information to customers. Kness said the platform lets 1,500 call center employees shave an average of two minutes off of customer calls. Wiki-based content in the system can be changed in a half-hour, as opposed to 24 hours, which is how long it took to update the company's old portal software. The company says it is expanding the platform to include RSS aggregation, persistent instant messaging, as well as a blogging feature inside the platform.
"We're going to start making it more part of the fabric of the way we do things," said Kness. "I'm not going to say that the entire enterprise is embracing it ... but the people using it are enjoying it and they find a lot of value in it."
As to how the new Web 2.0 applications will affect the network, "it's a great question," Kness said. "We have a really good network staff, but the effects these applications have on the network could be something to look at down the road." Growth of XML-based traffic, RSS streams and IM are issues Kness said he is watching. "If someone creates some kind of mashup application that keeps passing through a firewall, we'll have to think more about that" from a network perspective.