Networks' role undergoes shift

Networks' role undergoes shift

"Networks have, in many cases, become the business." At Gartner's Symposium/ITXpo 98 last week, that's how Manny Fernandez, CEO of the Gartner Group, summarised the No 1 issue facing the IT industry in coming years. Networks have always been challenging, but with the growing power of interconnecting applications, people, and organisations, the role of the network is becoming more and more critical to corporations.

Today, vendors such as Cisco, Microsoft and Novell are striving to be the company that more easily integrates the network into our computing infrastructure: these vendors' focus on the network is shifting from bits-per-second performance to ease of access and management.

Networks have been important to our industry since the early days of using lower-cost cables to share high-priced Corvus hard drives and laser printers. However, this value proposition has evaporated as disk-drive and printer prices have plummeted while the wealth of features have climbed. As such, networks have grown beyond this initial bit-shuttling role.

The network is becoming more of the conduit. During the client/server heydays, the major focus of networks was how fast the "pipe" was. Four-megabit and 10Mb local area networks (LANs) quickly became the norm. Today, corporate departments are installing 100Mb LANs given its low cost difference and their desire to ensure that the network isn't the bottleneck. With LANs now faster than computer I/O ports, the LAN isn't the bottleneck.

But a surprising change is occurring right now. Users aren't as focused on speed. Sure, they still want it, but they are more focused on easily accessing information. As such, users are willing to accept network delays because they see value in using the World Wide Wait, er, Web. As the Internet becomes more important, the value of their integration will outweigh network delays.

However, the network has to be more aware of its resources - beyond printers and hard drives. Usage today is demanding that items such as trust rights, public keys, and information management resources are known and easily accessed -- hence the focus on directories.

But building scalable directories is hard. Building easily integrated scalable directories is even harder. Vendors compensate by getting technology pushed down closer to "the wire". Each of the various vendors is taking its own approach, but they all know the prize of this game: being tightly integrated in the core corporate computing infrastructure for the next decade.

As Microsoft has proven with its operating system products, being the de facto standard brings huge value and strong industry clout. As such, Microsoft isn't quick to resign its role, but building Active Directory is proving more elusive than it initially imagined. By partnering with Cisco or Novell (or even both), Microsoft hopes to hold its place in line while its technology catches up to its dream.

Meanwhile, Cisco wants to ensure that it continues to be the equipment of choice for networking. Although it has earned the top spot for bit shuffling, it needs to show corporate America that it is as easy to use as it is fast. The company is working hard to push technology lower to offset some of its past challenges.

Novell used to be the one to beat. Its NetWare Directory Services (NDS) could be the de facto network directory today, but Novell botched its opportunity by not aggressively partnering with other vendors for NDS support. It was also initially handicapped by a technology that looked great on paper but couldn't scale to play in the "big game". Although it has solved that problem, others are close in this race with some very innovative solutions.

But this race is far from over. We will continue to see many entrants and vendors teaming for positions. However, it is clear that we won't go back to the pure focus on bit-pushing speeds. Networks have evolved and users have begun to accept the network as a given part of their computing environment. This acceptance is the first step toward the network as the core of all of our businesses.

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