Industry and Technology Insights and reflections by Mike Bushong
Moving the emphasis from networks to networking

verb.pngThe lingua franca for IT is acronyms. On the networking side, we speak primarily in protocols, abbreviations, and certifications. Our vocabulary is already full, but we seem to add more to it every year. And the rate of change only feels like it is accelerating.
With each new technology, we envision a more capable network. But what if the real area that needs improving is not the network but rather networking?
Nouns and verbs
The difference between making a better network and making networking better is subtle. The former is about building more capabilities into the devices. The latter is focused on making the practice of networking better. It’s a difference between nouns and verbs.
If you believe fundamentally that the biggest inhibitor to IT is yet another protocol, then you probably believe that innovation is an exercise in adding more capability into the devices—both individually and collectively—that make up the network. If, however, you believe that the biggest enemy to progress is that it is just to cumbersome to design and manage a network, then you probably favor the verb.
So which is it?
There are two ways to answer this question. If we look empirically at the technologies that are garnering the most attention these days, we can learn a bit about where the focus is. Technologies like disaggregation, SDN, NFV, DevOps, and intent-based management are all aimed at making networking cheap and cheerful. That is to say that these either help drive down procurement costs, or they make networking easier to do. Put more plainly, these all focus on networking, the verb.
A different way of looking at the same question is to examine the state of the market. Is the market largely well-served or under-served? An under-served market is still searching for core capabilities. Because these missing ingredients are prerequisites to success, price is secondary. Conversely, a well-served market has multiple functionally equivalent offerings, and is seeking to drive price down as solutions approach commodity. While there are certainly under-served parts of the networking market, the vast majority of buyers are more interested in accelerating the commoditization of networking. So whether we look at what is driving the buzz or what is driving purchasing behavior, we arrive at the same conclusion. 
A change in buyer
The change from networks to networking actually changes the buying motion across much of the industry. When the primary purchase criteria was whatever the newest protocol was, the balance of power sat with the architects. Indeed, if you can’t solve the problem, it doesn’t really matter how operationally friendly the solution might be.
If, however, the problems are largely solved, then how those solutions impact things like operations become the next most important thing. This means that the operations and procurement teams have a larger voice than they have historically had. 
With a different set of evaluation criteria, it’s no surprise that things like monitoring, visibility, analytics, visualization, and even upgrades are now important enough to get more than just lip service from the gear makers. Where these were nice to have previously, they now make the difference between winning an account or losing. If you have ever wondered why some of these areas have historically seemed under-valued in the market, this is why. And the change here means that we will see an increase in value in these surrounding product spaces.
From nice to have to table stakes
Interestingly, when things like visibility and telemetry move from nice to have to table stakes, it changes a lot of industry dynamics. For years, the larger players have existed alongside smaller companies whose offerings were primarily aimed at making the networking mainstays better. When these become critical pieces to a functional network, it might upset this balance a bit.
We have already seen the major vendors add some of this functionality into their baseline products. Expect to see more of this. After all, if something is a table stake, it simply cannot be left to someone else to include.
This will actually create follow-on effects in the rest of the industry. If, for instance, analytics are bundled with the baseline networking products, how will they be priced? In a commoditizing space, it seems difficult to license these separately over the long haul. And as these get rolled in as baseline features, what will the market tolerate for third-party pricing?
And this is all before we consider the role that cloud plays in these dynamics.
The role of partners
The shift from networks to networking also changes the role of channel partners. When the game was about the devices, the channel partners played a critical and lucrative part in making deals happen. When the emphasis shifts to operations, the opportunity for the channel changes.
The measure of a good partner will no longer be about vendor relationships and hardware pricing. Rather, a channel partner will differentiate based on their ability to offer support, services, and assistance with the migration towards next-generation operating practices. 
The smart channel partners have seen this writing on the wall for years. They have been adding software skills to their practices so that they can address the oncoming deluge of automation requests. Those that are caught flat-footed will find that they simply don’t add the value to justify any kind of premium, and they stand to be disintermediated as additional channels arise (especially with ODMs and systems integrators trying to move into this space).
What happens to sticky?
A nice knock-on effect to all of this is that the whole notion of sticky changes. In a world of protocols, patents provide a great way to make sure that your stuff is sticky. When everything moves to a smaller baseline set of protocols, all of which are open standard, sticky changes.
Sticky ought to be more about how well a vendor or partner understands your operational practices. Sticky ought to focus on the workflows and the tools and the integrations that power the people behind the network. Sticky ought to have some notion of understanding how IT supports or even drives the business. The context that surrounds why the network exists is more important than the context that determines how the wires are cabled. And in the new world order, that will be the kind of sticky that benefits everyone.
The bottom line
We are in the middle of a change. It’s not just a technology change. It’s a fundamental evolution beyond the boxes that define the infrastructure. The practice of networking is what needs help now. 
This change might seem subtle but it is going to alter forever how each of us acts. The things we think are important are already changing. How we interact with each other will change. Who we invite to the meetings will change. And how we ultimately make decisions will change. 
This means that the future will be defined less by the devices and more by all the things that surround those devices. Support and services have to evolve rapidly. Failure to make this change will lead to companies becoming basically irrelevant going forward. Not everyone survives evolution. Its kind of the purpose of evolution.

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