Kill the LAN!

Nick Roethel, Director of Technology Services (CIO), Metropolitan Transportation Commission
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Nick Roethel, Director of Technology Services (CIO), Metropolitan Transportation Commission

The LAN in the traditional sense is dying. For years, network engineers, suppliers and manufacturers have focused on multilayered, complex networks capable of routing traffic through a tapestry of complex equipment. Now, users demand simple solutions–they say, “give me access to the tools my teams are asking for–and keep it real simple.” The concern is whether the market is listening. As CIOs are selected from other, seemingly far less complicated parts of the business, the task is becoming clear: replace the traditional, layered network with a flat, more flexibly-oriented topology.

It starts at the user, and ultimately the business level. In the wild west of IT today, Cloud is the King and access to Internet based tools is crucial. Access to the SAN is old school. Access to an AWS environment is the key to the power user’s heart. Users today expect an Internet-centric network, and if they don’t get that experience, they create their own. The traditional needs of accessing the Oracle application or a file share, is passé–today’s focus is on constructing the unlimited world outside of your network confines.

In the 1990s, we (well, many of us) were sold on the idea of a ubiquitous Wi-Fi network. As some expected, the cell phone companies, and their seemingly unlimited resources, trumped efforts of local governments and other pet projects in providing the ubiquity that was sold as a virtual panacea of accessibility. Today, it is a battle of cloud providers, cell network operators and bandwidth brokers, all unharmoniously building a dysfunctional patchwork of infrastructure to bring a collection of related, yet unconnected data to users that “just want things to work”.

  ‚ÄčSecurity is a factor that must be considered, with a carefully calculated balance of agility and vigilance 

Complicating all of the new data are layers of local virtualization and legacy equipment. Virtualization, while fantastic for hardware reduction, has created a sprawl of server instances and adds yet another layer of management. Switches, routers, fiber to Ethernet media converters still exist, and are necessary for the traditional back office data access. That is quite a collection of expensive, complicated equipment and software. The question as many see it: how much of that environment is still necessary?

Consider this: a network architect re-engineering a large-scale corporate environment could conceivably build a network that has little more than high-capacity Internet connections, Wi-Fi controllers and access points.

Whoa, what about security? Hosted at the carrier’s end of the MPLS cloud.

What about phones? A hosted service with soft and app-based clients.

High end graphics users? Hosted Amazon workspaces.

For every argument there’s a rebuttal; for every question there’s an answer. Try this exercise: clear a white board and ask one simple question, “if I were to build a brand new network, what would it look like?” Likely the result would be simplistic–very simplistic.

What is being asserted within this article is a revolutionary shift driven by an evolution of user needs and changes. The idea of reprioritizing a network and shifting critical infrastructure out of arms length can be seen as uncomfortable, and for some unconscionable. That said, the user base will continue to evolve and expect simplicity, speed and flexibility. In other words, what’s uncomfortable is now the expected.

Of course, building a network that shifts focus from local servers and a LAN requires a shifting of mindset, as well. One major consideration is in the people we hire. The traditional skills of network engineers are important and need to be complemented with the understanding of the complexity of providing quality based access to cloud services while coordinating the security levels that have been the mainstay of traditional networking. One word comes to mind when hiring network engineers in today’s environment—that word is flexibility.

Finding these people will not be easy. The conundrum is in the skills. CCIE, CCNP and Network+ certified resources are fairly easy to find. Finding agile, skilled and open-minded engineers with an appetite for calculated risk is a bit more challenging. A deep understanding of cloud-based providers’ roadmaps, future mobile and Wi-Fi developments and hardware vendor intentions are key to building networks in a proactive mode. The skill set is difficult, but not impossible, to find. Recruiting will be key; and outreach to colleges and technical schools is absolutely necessary to craft the talent we, as CIOs need.

Security is a factor that must be considered, with a carefully calculated balance of agility and vigilance. Here’s the crux of the matter, how do CIOs take security seriously while providing users with the access they expect to the tools they’ve adopted (with or without permission)? Security is already morphing and fortunately third-party tools and services exist to respond to the challenge we are faced with. Beyond advanced threat monitoring and reporting, there are advanced threat services that are equipped to deal with this up and coming hybrid environment.

Looking forward, hosted services and on-demand apps are not a fad. The new normal has been set and response to the new environment has been overwhelmingly positive by our users. Hiring the right people, adjusting our own attitudes and embracing what could be, will be key. Going “Lanless” is real and an idea that could and should revolutionize the way we deliver value to our internal–and external–customers.

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