5 ways enterprise networkers can - and can't - be like webscale stars

Agile network technologies are trickling down from companies like Facebook, but not everything translates

20160713 facebook prineville data center

Facebook's data center in Prineville, Oregon.

Credit: Facebook

Everybody wants to be a winner. One way to get there is to follow the leaders.

In networking, big cloud companies like Google and Facebook are at the top of their game. They run giant data centers, continually launch and modify large-scale applications, and don’t seem to be bound to big system vendors.

Many ordinary enterprises would love what the internet heavyweights have: standardized networks that can support any application without administrators having to configure a lot of proprietary hardware.

Conveniently, some of those cutting-edge companies offer parts of their technology to others through open-source specifications. But there are limits to how well a company in the insurance or machine-tool business can emulate world-changing tech giants. It turns out no one can just become Google, at least not overnight.

Here are five things that most enterprises can’t actually do to become like the Internet giants, followed by five things they can.

1. Have special equipment built just for their networks

Companies like Google and Facebook design their own gear and hire manufacturers in Asia to build it. They need so many switches, servers and other devices that this custom gear is made in high volume and competes on cost with ordinary products. Only a handful of enterprises are big enough to do that. Have you ever spooled out 950 miles of cable for one data center, like Facebook does?

2. Attract the best and most adventurous network engineers – a lot of them

Practically every IT shop can make an argument for why a bright young engineer should come work for them, but no bank or farm-equipment company is quite Amazon or Microsoft.

Being where some of the hottest technologies are born is a big draw for talent, and this pays dividends. An army of top engineers comes in handy when you want to build a cutting-edge network. “There’s a tremendous battle for talent right now,” says IDC analyst Brad Casemore.

3. Only acquire companies with similar cultures and approaches to technology

At the big internet companies, acquisitions are usually tech startups. The fit may not always be perfect, but their cultures tend to be similar and their technology modern. The employees who come with these companies often are used to working on new technologies and ready to quickly change direction. Some become the network engineers who help make web giants hum.

By contrast, mainstream enterprises often buy companies that come with legacy systems and IT staff who have a hard time getting used to new technologies, said Nick Lippis, co-chairman of the Open Networking User Group (ONUG).

4. Standardize and automate all IT systems

Companies like Google keep their maintenance overhead low with a top-down approach to IT, migrating all applications to the same computing and networking platforms. “They standardize ruthlessly ... and then automate dogmatically,” said Gartner analyst Joe Skorupa. Their vast technical teams, plus that focus on buying young companies, help make this possible.

By contrast, some ordinary enterprises have thousands of applications to deal with and require 100 people to sign off on a project before it can happen, Lippis said. It’s much harder to use the same technical approach across the board in such companies, so it could take years to gain the full efficiencies that come from SDN (software-defined networking) and policy-based networking.

5. Base everything on open hardware and software

Efforts like the Open Compute Project’s networking initiative have created a fledgling ecosystem for finished products that are open. But even though you no longer have to design and code everything yourself just to escape the proprietary world, it’s still more than average IT departments can do, some analysts said.

“Most enterprises would struggle with this,” IDC’s Casemore said. Though the movement has produced some hardware and software products that are designed for mixing and matching, this is still a work in progress. “I don’t think they’ve put together the right packages, to this point,” Casemore said.

The good news

Though the stars aren’t aligned for network automation in enterprises as much as they are at the webscale giants, it’s not as if average companies are powerless. There are steps they can take to get some of the benefits of the next generation of networking.

1. Start small

Implement new technologies on the sidelines, where engineers can learn and the benefits can be proved.

“Carve off new projects, and that’s where you introduce the innovation,” Gartner’s Skorupa says. For example, if you set up a new Hadoop cluster, try buying Hewlett Packard Enterprise switches with software from SDN startup Cumulus Networks just for that implementation. If it works in one place, it may later become a candidate for enterprisewide deployment.

2. Broaden your horizons

If you’re dependent on one network vendor, diversify. Big network vendors say they want to partner with their customers, but that attitude actually shortchanges enterprises, Skorupa says.

By keeping blinders on, they miss opportunities to save money and buy products that might be better for them. “When they define themselves in terms of their vendor, that’s something a hyperscale guy would never do,” he said.

Cloud companies define themselves by the services they deliver and then find the best vendors to support those. Though juggling two vendors is harder in networking than in computing, it’s worth it for the leverage, Skorupa said.

3. Explore new approaches that go part of the way

While going completely agile, white-box and software-defined may be beyond an average company’s abilities, there are technologies that offer some of the benefits without all the headaches.

For example, Arista Networks sells switches with some white-box benefits, like standard hardware and lower cost, but with service and support included so enterprises aren’t on their own.

Hewlett-Packard Enterprise’s Altoline switch family is approved by OCP and can be ordered with OSes from Cumulus or Pica8. An open installation environment allows for other OSes, too.

4. Try some easier automation tools

There are also software products that can bring automation to networks from brand-name vendors. These systems take policies based on an enterprise's intent and automatically translate them into code or CLI commands for network devices from multiple vendors. This can be a way around having to hire all those ace developers who are being lured away by webscale companies, ONUG co-chairman Lippis said.

For example, the Apstra Operating System, from the Silicon Valley startup Apstra, can work with equipment from Cisco, HPE, Juniper Networks, OCP and others. It includes telemetry to detect and report on whether the network is really carrying out the intended policies.

5. Get the CEO on your side

Standardizing and automating a network is easier with fewer applications, and all these efforts require hard choices that some people won’t be happy with.

Be prepared for them to fight change all the way up the chain of command, Skorupa said. To keep individual departments from blocking network evolution, you need an ally at the top.

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