But the way that most organisations interact with business customers, partners and consumers has changed so radically in the last 20 years that in reality the majority are now service providers of some sort.
The degree to which this is the case in northern Europe is examined in a recent Quocirca research report: In demand: the culture of online service provision. The report looked at enterprise and mid-market organisations from a broad range of sectors. Overall 66 percent were providing online services; for the majority it was ecommerce (retail, financial and supply chain). However, many were also providing IT services and this was not just in the hi-tech industry (think of online support services using chat).
Almost 53 percent were providing business-to-business services, but business-to-consumer (B2C) was not far behind at just over 42 percent. It is a long time since such online interaction was simply a 'nice to have' additional communications channel or route to market. In many cases these on-demand services are now the principle way in which organisations are interacting with external users.
Many supply chain systems are 100 percent reliant on internet access and the availability of the supporting applications: online banking services are expected to be constantly available and pure online retailers are commonplace.
It is therefore not surprising that reliability is the top priority for online application delivery (closely followed by security).
Quocirca's report, sponsored by Citrix, also looks at the use of advanced supporting technologies for on-demand applications; these include:
- Multi-tenancy – the ability to provide flexible support for multiple applications to multiple customers and the need to manage differing resource and security requirements on the same platform. A technology for achieving the economies of scale of many online services.
- Cloud bursting – the ability to rapidly increase the resources available to a given application by transferring workloads to a cloud computing platform, usually provided by a third party service provider.
- Fabric and consolidated networks – the move away from rigid physical deployment to flexibly virtualised network capacity, increasingly referred to as software defined networks.
- Application delivery controllers (ADC) – network devices that provide advanced load balancing and perform common tasks required by a given set of applications to free up application server and network resources.
The majority of those providing IT or ecommerce services were running fabric or consolidated networks usually with ADCs as a key component; both going hand in hand with almost ubiquitous server virtualisation.
And 80 percent of organisations providing five or more types of online service had deployed ADCs; interestingly 24 percent were using on-demand ADC services.
Reliable and secure online applications supported by advanced technologies are all well and good, but it turns out that as organisations become more and more committed to providing online services they face a further challenge – a skills shortage.
Overall only 32 percent are happy with the availability and currency of networking skills. The majority look for vendor accreditations when seeking new staff and this is more likely to be the case for those organisations that are committed to online service provision and they will pay more for them.
The obvious message for would-be network engineers, that want to work at the bleeding edge of online service provision, is get trained up with the necessary skills, where relevant backed by accreditations from the leading vendors. The need for such skills seems unlikely to diminish as the reliance on online services grows.
However, some of the more technical, platform-oriented jobs are likely to migrate to traditional service providers as the providers of commercial online services turn to their platforms more and more. They will do this in order to focus their own resources on what really counts – the reliable delivery of on-demand applications.
Bob Tarzey is a director at user-facing analyst house Quocirca. As part of the Quocirca team, which focuses on technology and its business implications, Tarzey specialises in route to market for vendors, IT security, network computing, systems management and managed services.