The explosion of e-commerce is both good and bad news for businesses: although it has created unprecedented growth and opportunity, it has in turn heightened the complexity of networking technologies needed to support business processes.
Cathleen Moore reports
Coupled with other factors, such as voice and data convergence and the shortage of qualified IT staff, more and more e-businesses are looking outside their doors for infrastructure planning, implementation, maintenance, and strategy development.
"When a dot-com goes online and sells travel packages, their core competency is not deploying infrastructure services and hooking up networking equipment," says Richard Dean, program manager of the network support and integration services program at International Data Corp (IDC).
Among the challenges facing both dot-coms and large bricks-and-mortars attempting to create an Internet identity are integrating Web-based technology and processes into core business functions, designing customised networks that can scale with the business, and ensuring network security and performance, according to analysts.
In response to these factors, many networking vendors, including 3Com, Lucent Technologies, Cisco Systems and Nortel Networks are ramping up their professional services offerings, once widely considered an afterthought to products.
"Professional services has been transformed from a follow-on to products in the late 1980s and 90s, to a now more and more service-led engagement with a customer," says Eric Goodness, director and principal analyst of network and Internet services at Gartner/Dataquest.
Goodness says professional services can include installation, consulting (for planning, design, and business strategy), operations, and outsourcing.
Other analysts point out the specific factors pushing enterprises to seek professional help with networks. "When you're dealing with e-business using the Internet, you have to deal with performance and security issues that you wouldn't normally deal with [for] private networks," says Kitty Weldon, program manager of communications services at analyst The Yankee Group. "The issues of security and multi vendor support are more complicated."In addition to infrastructure needs, e-businesses are also seeking help in Internet strategy and application development.
3Com's Consulting Services unit early last month announced four consulting packages aimed at small and midsize e-businesses. The services include e-commerce, customer contact centres, enterprise mobility, and multimedia convergence.
According to Chu Chang, vice president and general manager of 3Com Consulting Services, a vital concern for smaller e-businesses is cost of services and time to market.
Chang points out that e-business needs are driving a packaged format for services, in which specific business goals are clearly spelled out in the service, rather than hourly rate consulting for individual pieces. For example, 3Com's e-business service packages range from basic productivity needs - such as e-mail, Internet connection and a Web site - to more advanced service packages for business growth that can include a personalisation engine, supply-chain integration, customer relationship management (CRM) and business-to-business strategy development.
Indicative of its partnering approach to meeting customer needs, last month Cisco announced a Professional Services Partner (PSP) program, which qualifies selected professional services companies to provide Cisco customers with services for network planning, design, implementation, and operation. Companies that initially qualified in the US for the PSP program include KPMG Consulting, Datatec Systems, Hewlett-Packard, IBM Global Services, and Unisys. Cisco also last year invested $US1 billion in KPMG's Internet services business.
Cisco officials say e-commerce and the convergence of voice, video and data are creating an increasingly complex business environment, which requires its small and large customers to deploy networks that demand specialised technology support.
Lucent's NetworkCare division recently introduced a consulting services package aimed at helping competitive local exchange carriers (CLECs) with network operations and strategy. Lucent officials say its ServiceWorks is the first in a series of programs targeting specific markets. Future programs include application service providers (ASPs), enterprises, and the cable market, they add.
Other vendors making services plays include Nortel, which in February launched its Global Professional Services strategy for enterprises and service providers. Nortel officials say the company plans alliances with consulting firms to complement its internal consulting staff.
Analysts forecast that the need for professional services will continue. "The professional services space is hot," Gartner/Dataquest's Goodness says. "It is about optimising the enterprise environment. Getting that environment much more stable than it has been in past years and getting it ready for the next wave of technology, Voice over IP [VoIP] convergence, [and] multimedia networks."