In our high-tech digital world where business is extremely fast-paced, the network has become central to maintaining a competitive advantage. By Jaco Erasmus, Dell Enterprise Division Manager at Drive Control Corporation.

A robust, integrated, open network provides the kind of operational efficiency that allows it to stand out among its competitors by providing lightning-fast product and service information, ease of transaction and an exceptional customer service response.

However, upgrading the network is often seen as an expensive, onerous exercise that presents challenges such as vendor lock-in, integrating legacy hardware and software, and sourcing the necessary skills to support the new networking equipment.

The big question is, how do you ensure that your network goes beyond being adequate to something that makes customers choose to do business with you? Adding to the complexity of maintain costs or experiencing the kind of teething problems that frustrate customers and employees alike?

Key areas vital to competitive advantage

Today customers have an abundance of choice and therefore demand a certain level of service for their cash. If they struggle to source information, complete a transaction or don’t get the required level of service that they deem appropriate, they move on to another service provider. Added to this is word of mouth whereby they tell, friends, family and followers about it on social media causing irreversible reputational damage.

Customers also have access to platforms which allow them to log and rate their experiences, creating a track record that influences the buying decisions of future customers.

Internally, a robust, agile network also has a huge impact on the operational efficiency of a company. A network that has performance problems causes information bottlenecks and slow response times, resulting in employees spending a longer time executing tasks and fixing problems created by the operational inefficiencies. These in turn, costs the company money.

The case for upgrading your network

One of the challenges that businesses face is determining whether an upgraded network will bring in enough benefits to justify the costs. Does it makes sense to limp along with the network as it is, extracting maximum value from the investment, or is keeping the current network being pennywise but pound-foolish?

The amount of information that businesses are collecting on their customers and markets are expanding rapidly, resulting in the need for them to expand their servers/storage capacity.

However, it doesn’t make sense to expand server capacity while neglecting the network infrastructure, as you also need a network that has enough flexibility and bandwidth to move this data when required. The failure to upgrade network infrastructure will most likely result in bottlenecks and performance issues.

That is why companies looking at virtualisation and highly available environments should seriously consider using 10Gbe as a backbone connectivity. This increases the amount of data they can move and synchronise between hosts and reduce the risks of downtime and loss of data.

In terms of trends, 40Gbe is also being implemented more regularly, as the role of business intelligence and real-time analytics to increase businesses’ competitiveness grows.

Issues to consider when upgrading the network

Whilst the concept of a painless network upgrade is unlikely, there are certain steps that one can take to smooth over the process.

Some of the issues to be considered when upgrading the network are vendor lock-in/compatibility; integrating legacy equipment, hardware and software; and sourcing the right skills to support the new networking.

Choosing a proprietary hardware solution can sometimes cause headaches when expanding or replacing components of your network. This can be due to the availability of the hardware (i.e are the vendors still producing the hardware in the version that is needed) as well as the cost (could you get something else that does the job well, at a lower cost).

Then there is the challenge of making sure that the legacy hardware is compatible and inter-operable with the new hardware. The more open and interoperable your network is, the quicker it is to deploy new hardware and services.

This is where Software Defined Networking (SDN) can really help in easing the challenges. The idea behind SDN is to decouple the system that makes decisions about where traffic is sent in the network (the control plane) from the underlying systems that forward traffic to the selected destination (the data plane).

This gives the administrators greater control over the underlying hardware, so that they can alternate between services rapidly and within budget, without compromising the ability to meet customer needs.