The concept of smart networking is nothing new. At the start of the century,
when Cabletron and Bay Networks roamed the landscape, they created smart
networking for the enterprise.
Before they eventually died out, these monsters grew to massive proportions by creating intelligent networks for enterprises.
The tools of their trade were initially hubs, huge great switching boxes with endless boards, fast backplanes and ports connecting to every user. Later, these switches took on a greater level of sophistication with routing functions.
These centralised devices had processing power and ran software that essentially made them mini computers.
Never mind that they could report back to a central management console any intelligence about, say, suspicious packets of data moving around the network, or attempts by outsiders to intrude onto the network.
They also had the intelligence to make rudimentary decisions on matters such as controlling the flow of networking traffic.
Evolution of the technology
The upshot was that enterprise networks evolved to provide incredible levels of sophistication.
Smart networking gave corporations the ability to become more fluid. Staff could be offsite, in branch offices or working on a laptop in a hotel room, and still be part of a secure network.
Smart networking meant the corporate IT infrastructure achieved massive reach.
They were able to control all kinds of functions that enabled the company to manage its resources more efficiently.
Security defences could be automated and, as the network gathered intelligence about the movement of data and the intentions of the users, managers were given greater information to act on.
If problems were not nipped in the bud, they could at least be retrospectively diagnosed and learned from.
Similarly, the loading of the network and storage of information could be better balanced, thanks to the intelligence of the network. Smart networks induced massive improvements in management capability.
This was a luxury that only enterprises could afford, because it is expensive to install intelligent agents across all points of the network, unless the customer enjoys the economies of scale of an enterprise.
On the other hand, small- and medium-sized companies did not have the budget to afford smart networking equipment.
Even if they did, it was unlikely they had the degree of specialisation needed in their IT department to cope with storage and security management issues. That is assuming that they had an IT department in the first place.
By 2008, however, it is a different story. Small and medium sized firms are entirely dependent on their IT infrastructures.
The rise of internet protocol as the dominant standard for communication means that telecoms and IT have finally begun to merge. So even SMEs are conducting the odd video and web conference and using multi-media technology.
SMEs are starting to take on the structure of mini enterprises too. They have mobile workers and their own version of remote access.
In an enterprise, remote access meant connecting a branch office to the HQ office network and making them all appear as one.
In the SME, remote access is more likely to be about giving the boss access to the company information when she or he is working from home, and ensuring all company calls are routed to them.
But it is all the same thing. In the same way as their enterprise counterparts, SMEs are likely to have off-site back up, or some sort of storage management issues.
They are likely to take security more seriously too, such is their growing reliance on IT to drive the business. If their systems are down, they grind to a halt.
In some cases, where companies have been foolhardy enough to commit themselves entirely to IP centrex, even the phones do not work if the IT infrastructure is compromised.
And yet they still have these dumb, rather unsophisticated boxes that connect their networks together. So, many small and medium sized businesses need enterprise-level smart networking products, but at SME prices.
And this is why the likes of Netgear, HP and D-Link have pioneered smart switches for the SME market.
To make them affordable to SMEs, the manufacturers have taken the type of switch supplied to enterprise networks, and stripped out all the functions that were not entirely necessary for a smaller business.
Now there are three levels of switch SMEs can buy for their networks. Or rather, three levels of switch that resellers can recommend for their SME customers.
The first category, unmanaged switches, are not going to give the channel much joy to sell.
These plug-and-play devices, to the customer, are more or less the same as the boxes an ISP might give them for free when they get a home internet account. Where is the value in that?
Managed switches do require a degree of technical savvy.
But there is still not too much margin to be made from them, according to James Walker, EMEA product marketing manager for SMEs at Netgear. However, it is the smart switches that should enthuse the channel, he says.
“Smart switches have enterprise functions, but they have been specially tailored to be accessible to SMEs. We have added the right feature sets, with easy-to-follow interfaces, so users can work out for themselves how to configure their networks,” says Walker.
End user friendly
So, end users have a sophisticated box with an easily understood operating system.
Presumably, this means they will plug the devices in, and set their networks up in a one-time configuration, then forget about them.
It does not leave much room for the reseller to add value. Or does it?
“The beauty of these products is they engage the end user. They are the hook that gets them started on
a more sophisticated level of networking,” says Walker.
“Once they are in, they will realise how much more they could do, but they need someone to manage the more sophisticated functions.”
The logic that SMEs would install a smart network, then become more ambitious and branch out into new areas such as remote access, storage and security which eventually need to be managed by IT resellers and service suppliers, sounds a little rum to a neutral observer.
Andy Miller, managing director of Miller Solutions, a Netgear reseller, was guarded about accepting this line too, until he went on one of Netgear’s WLAN specialist training courses, as part of his induction to smart networking.
But now he is speaking like a convert. “I was a bit sceptical at first, but when I went on a WLAN specialist course I was introduced to the concept of the controller and I suddenly thought ‘wow’.
“I could see how these products lead to a massive amount of consultancy work,” Miller testifies.
Miller learned that one of the features of Netgear’s smart switches is that they take all the guesswork out of WLAN installations.
This revelation made him realise how the consultancy project on a big campus installation of WLAN could become the work of a few moments, and yet be handsomely rewarded.
“If you have a school wanting 48 access points to be installed, there can be blindspots,” he explains.
It is an incredibly laborious task, mapping out the blindspots where wireless signals cannot be received and networking is impossible.
Worse still, one or two of these areas will inevitably be missed, meaning that the resultant wireless network ends up with holes in it.
So instead of having one seamless network, the customer ends up with a patchwork of WLANs. This on its own is unsatisfactory.
It also limits their ambitions for other applications. For example, without a seamless network, voice over IP (VoIP) is a non-starter.
But the smart switches change all that or the management software that comes with Netgear’s smart switches does at last.
This is a neat illustration of how the web interfaces of smart switches make using these systems easier. The building plans for the large school, in which Miller Solutions intends to install a WLAN, are available in digital format. These plans can be uploaded and mapped onto the management system for the Netgear smart switch.
“At a glance we have the layout for all three floors of the school,” said Miller, relieved that he would no longer have to walk around the floors conducting a physical inspection.
“From the plans we could see where the blindspots were likely to be and make those the sites of our access points,” he explains.
All the time-consuming planning has been eliminated from this project. It makes network installations far more profitable.
It also extends the scope of the network, meaning that Miller is more likely to be called back for more ambitious projects, such as storage infrastructures, as the network grows.
As the client gets more confident about deploying IT strategically, it makes it more likely that one day they will need to get a reseller in to run the network, or a part of it, as a managed service.
The Netgear smart switch has widened the business horizons of one reseller at least. “We have loads of public sector tenders in now,” said Miller.
Further growth potential
A key advantage of smart networking is its scalability. Smart switches can easily be aggregated as the user’s network grows.
This is achieved by physically stacking them, so they are joined as one device, or by managing them through a browser, viewing them as one virtual device even if they are placed in separate rooms or in different buildings.
Thus from one small switch, resellers can build one giant switch by increments. As with departmental LANs in the early 1990s, if end users are given the tools to be independent, they will eventually build something so complex they need an IT expert to run it for them.
And they will gladly pay resellers top dollar to surrender their independence.
It is all about seducing them into buying more IT equipment. Like all brilliant marketing strategies it appears very simple, but underneath, it is fiendishly cunning.
Rob Bamforth, principal analyst for service provision and mobility at Quocirca, says: “The smart bit here is more about combining consumer-like features such as simple browser configuration and management with business features such as power over Ethernet and stacking.”
“The lower complexity will mean they fit well in environments where dedicated IT support is thin on the ground small businesses, retail and schools are good examples but still available in a fashion. Maybe it offers a reseller an opportunity to add some low-cost value add to a deployment. A ‘let us take care of that for you’ message,” he adds.
The next stage is to sell and install applications that make use of such a network, such as VoIP, unified
communications and portals, argued Iain Kenney, director of product marketing at SMC Networks. “You have done the set up, now provide the punch line,” he joked.
“SMEs can achieve dramatic cost savings with VoIP and video conferencing,” says Kenney.
“The high cost of a fully managed network could easily outweigh the cost benefits of moving to VoIP.
“At a price point slightly higher than unmanaged switches, it can be more cost effective to choose a smart switch rather than the managed devices at the other end of the scale.”
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