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Data, Applications, and the Meaning of the Network

Russ White

Two things seem to be universally true in the network engineering space right this moment. The first is that network engineers are convinced their jobs will not exist, or there will only be network engineers "in the cloud" within the next five years. The second is a mad scramble to figure out how to add value to the business through the network. These two movements are, of course, mutually exclusive visions of the future. If there is absolutely no way to add value to a business through the network, then it only makes sense to outsource the whole mess to a utility-level provider.

The result, far too often, is for the folks working on the network to run around like they've been in the hot aisle so long that your hair is on fire. This result, however, somehow seems less than ideal.

I will suggest there are alternate solutions available if we just learn to think sideways and look for them. Burning hair is not a good look (unless it is an intentional part of some larger entertainment). What sort of sideways thinking am I looking for? Let's begin by going back to basics by asking a question that might be a bit dangerous to ask — do applications really add business value? They certainly seem to. After all, when you want to know or do something, you log into an application that either helps you find the answer or provides a way to get it done.

But wait — what underlies the application? Applications cannot run on thin air (although I did just read someplace that applications running on "the cloud" add business value, implying applications running on-premises do not). They must have data or information in order to do their jobs (like producing reports, or allowing you to order something). In fact, one of the major problems developers face when switching from one application to handle a task to another one is figuring out how to transfer the data.

This seems to imply that data, rather than applications, is at the heart of the business. When I worked for a large enterprise, one of my favorite points to make in meetings was we are not a widget company… we are a data company. I normally got blank looks from both the IT and the business folks sitting in the room when I said this — but just because the folks in the room did not understand it does not mean it is not true.

What difference does this make? If the application is the center of the enterprise world, then the network is well and truly a commodity that can, and should, be replaced with the cheapest version possible. If, however, data is at the heart of what a business does, then the network and the application are equal partners in information technology. It is not that one is "more important," while the other is "less important;" rather, the network and the applications just do different things for and to one of the core assets of the business — information.

After all, we call it information technology, rather than application technology. There must be some reason "information" is in there — maybe it is because information is what really drives value in the business?

How does changing our perspective in this way help? After all, we are still "stuck" with a view of the network that is "just about moving data," right? And moving data is just about exciting as moving, well… water through pipes, right?

No, not really.

Once information is the core, then the network and applications become "partners" in drawing value out of data in a way that adds value to the business. Applications and the network are but "fungible," in that they can be replaced with something newer, more effective, better, etc., but neither is really more important than the other.

This topic is a part of my talk at NXTWORK 2019 — if you've not yet registered to attend, right now is a good time to do so.

By Russ White, Infrastructure Architect at Juniper Networks
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Related topics: Cloud Computing, Networks
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