Finding the One Driver for the Future

Networking has, for decades, seemed to advance based on changes in how we do stuff.  We progressed from TDM to packet, from SNA to IP in business networks, and now we’re moving (so they say) from legacy IP and Ethernet to SDN and NFV and from electrical to optical.  Underneath this seeming consistency is an important point, which is that we had not a whole bunch of shifts in networking but two, and not on the “supply side” but on the demand side.

Starting back in the ‘50s when we began to apply computing to business, we realized that information had to be collected to be optimally useful.  Yes, you can distribute computing power and information to workers, but you have to collect stuff for analysis and distribution from a central point.  If you don’t believe that, consider how well your bank would work if every teller had to keep an independent record of the account of every customer who walked into a branch to make a deposit or withdrawal.

When computing made what was arguably the first of its major advances—the mid-60s with the advent of the IBM System 360 mainframe—we were still pushing bits at about 1200 per second.  Even 20 years later we were still dealing with WAN data rates measured in the kilobits, at a time when we’d already advanced to minicomputers and PCs.  The point is that the fact that the public network was based on relatively low-speed analog and TDM created a kind of network shortfall, and we had a lot of investment to be made simply exploiting the information centralization that had occurred while we were poking around with Bell 103 and 212 modems.

The challenge we have now is that we caught up.  We’ve had startling advances in network technology and so we can now connect and deliver the stuff we’ve centralized.

The second shift came about with the Internet and the intersection of the Internet with our first trend.  The Internet gave us the notion of “hosting”, or “experience networking” where we used communications not to talk with each other but with some centralized resource.  Broadband made that access efficient enough to be valuable, for education, shopping and entertainment.  We’re now pushing broadband to the consumer to the point where bandwidth that would have cost a company ten grand a month (T3 access) twenty years ago is less than a hundred a month today.

Some people, Cisco most notably, postulate in effect that what should happen now is a kind of reversal of the past.  Centralized information and content burst out of its cage by driving network costs downward.  The network was the limiting factor.  Now the idea is that the network’s greater capacity will justify a bunch of new content, new applications, new stuff that will drive up usage and empower greater network investment.

I’m not a fan of this view.  Lower cost of distribution can reduce the barriers to accepting new applications or experiences, but it can’t create the experiences or information.  Videoconferencing is a good example; a decade of promoting videoconferencing has proven that if we give it away people will take it, but they’ll avoid paying for it in the majority of cases.  Networking can’t move forward by doing stuff for free; you can’t earn an ROI on a free service.

What limits the scope, the value, of networking today?  You could argue that it’s not anything in networking at all but something back inside, the information or experience source.  Back in the mid-60s I heard a pioneer IT type in a major corporation tell executives that the computer could double the productivity of their workers.  Twenty years later, my surveys showed that almost 90% of executives still believed that was possible, and only a small percentage less believe it today.  But they believe that information will do the job and not connection.  The networking revolution of the future is dependent on IT, on backfilling the information/experience reservoir with more stuff to deliver.  The cloud, or how the cloud evolves, is more important to networking than SDN or NFV because it could answer the questions Why do we want to do this and How will we make money on it?

That doesn’t mean that we have to sit on our hands.  SDN and NFV represent mechanisms for adapting what the network can do and how cheaply it can do it.  They can change the basic economics of networking so that things that were impossible a decade ago become practical or even easy now.  Mobile networking is that kind of new force, and so what we should be looking to now to transform both networking and IT is how SDN and NFV and the cloud would intersect with the mobile trend.

Back in the mid-60s we were collecting transaction information by keypunching information from retail records.  How much broadband do you think businesses would be consuming now if that application was still the driver of data movement?  At some point in the future, when every worker has a kind of super-personal-assistant in the form of a mobile device and uses this gadget in every aspect of their jobs, we’ll look back on today’s models of business productivity and laugh.  Same with entertainment.  But it’s just as laughable to assume that we’d advance networking without mobility as to assume that punched cards could drive broadband deployment.

The battle for network supremacy and the battle for IT supremacy have always been symbiotic in the past.  Cisco’s success was as much due to the impact of the PC on business networking and the shift away from SNA that created as it was from the Internet—maybe even more.  The question is whether the next big thing will be, as past ones have been, a step by a new player into a niche created by another, or a leap by a player who has both network and IT credentials.  Cisco and IBM, arguably the giants in their respective fields, hope it’s the latter and that they’ll do the leaping.  The standards processes, the VCs, those who want to continue both network and IT populism hope that we can somehow do the former and advance as an industry.

Can we?  None of our past successes in networking or IT were fostered by standards and collective action.  I’d hope, as most of you likely do, that it can be different this time, but great advances in an information age are likely to demand great changes with massive scopes of impact, and it’s not going to be easy to let go of all our little projects and envision a great one.  But only a great change can bring great results.  Somehow we have to fuse IT and networking together, and into mobility.  Otherwise we’re going to cost-manage until we’re promoting accounting degrees instead of computer science degrees.