A good network can give you an edge, but a poorly managed one is a fundamental business risk, says Bob Tarzey.

In the old days, those who had to ensure their organisation’s networks were secure, reliable and sufficient for their needs were dealing with known resources and predictable usage.

Network equipment was confined to the organisation’s various premises, the larger of which were linked via dedicated leased lines. Smaller locations were often deemed unworthy of network access.

The applications that ran over the network were nearly all planned and provisioned by the IT department. That has all changed in the past 20 years as the internet has become a fundamental business resource and employees have become far more mobile.

Today, ensuring the performance, reliability and security of network usage requires that a holistic view is taken of internal network resources, the internet and mobile network services.


Unplanned use, such as users accessing social media and firing up mobile apps at will, makes ensuring network performance and security problematicPhoto: Shutterstock

Only when this is the case can the impact the network has on the end-to-end user experience be understood and a minimum acceptable service level aspired to.

The problem is exacerbated by unpredictable workloads. IT departments themselves have been loading networks with increasingly resource-hungry applications – for example, voice and videoconferencing.

They have also been cramming more and more processing power into datacentres through the use of virtualisation, which means more network resource is required per physical server. They are also using online resources to supplement internal infrastructure which requires a reliable and suitably broad interface to the internet.

On-demand services also make it easy for lines of business to provision their own applications and IT resources. Employees can do this provisioning too.

They access social media sites and fire up mobile apps at will, sometimes for good business reasons, but more likely for personal use. Such unplanned use makes ensuring network performance and security problematic, to say the least.

Data from Plan B Disaster Recovery reported in Quocirca’s recent free report, Don’t forget the network, shows that the most common reason for application failure is a network communications breakdown of some sort.

In other words, the network is the soft underbelly of most organisations’ IT infrastructure. To get on top of this issue you have to…

…monitor the user experience constantly and understand the impact the network is having when that experience is not good enough.

Mitigation may require upgrades to network services or equipment, but it may be sufficient in some cases simply to adjust and optimise usage of the existing network.


Most networks have been cobbled together over the years by a series of network managers and contractorsPhoto: Shutterstock

A port assessment by Networks First, a network management company that sponsored Quocirca’s recent report, shows that in many cases network equipment is actually underutilised. With intelligent application, it should be possible to drive more performance out of existing resources.

For many it makes sense to hand the complexities of ensuring minimum network service levels to a third-party management company. The initial stage of any such assignment is discovery.

What equipment and services are in place and how do they map together to form the total network? It may seem surprising that a given organisation does not already know these facts. But most networks have been cobbled together over a number of years by a succession of network managers and contractors often dealing with tactical issues without regard for an overall long-term network strategy.

Once the network components are understood, the network’s current base performance and loading can be assessed. Whether this is good or bad, it’s essential for providing a benchmark for measuring how the management company is improving service levels.

The user experience needs to be measured continuously to ensure it does not regularly drop below a target baseline and that when it does, the reasons are understood and, if necessary, remedied.

The tools required for monitoring and managing network performance tend to be sophisticated and expensive. Open-source ones are available but require good technical skills to exploit. Smaller organisations may not have access to such tools and larger organisations may lack the time or wherewithal to get the most out of them.

Network management companies will have developed the expertise to use such tools and can share their cost over a number of customers, making them available to their customers, whatever their size.

Whatever steps are taken to ensure the performance, availability and security of a network, the cost of doing so must be justified by three factors.

  1. It must be possible to reduce running costs, or at least ensure better ongoing performance, without excessive short- to medium-term investments in new equipment and services.
  2. The business risks posed by the network and problems with its performance and security must be mitigated and minimum service levels guaranteed.
  3. A stable network that performs well and has excess capacity should be capable of being relied on to provide new business value as required.

Most businesses will not have the in-depth understanding of their networks to be sure of achieving many of these goals. Most will not even have had a recent network assessment. If they did, they may well be surprised at how poorly it is serving them and how much may be gained from addressing this issue.

A functional network is imperative for a 21st-century business. A well-managed, high-availability, high-performance and secure network can be a distinct competitive advantage. A poorly managed one can be a fundamental business risk.

Bob Tarzey is a director at Quocirca, a user-facing analyst house known for its focus on the big picture. Made up of experts in technology and its business implications, the Quocirca team includes Clive Longbottom, Bob Tarzey, Rob Bamforth and Louella Fernandes. Their series of columns for silicon.com seeks to demystify the latest jargon and business thinking.