By Colin Edwards
Vendors say users need to adopt new technologies or get left behind in the dust. However, Colin Edwards finds that sometimes a wait-and-see strategy is best.
Despite the common perception that the Middle East is investing heavily in the future by adopting tomorrow's technologies today, the on-the-ground reality is that just as the rest of the world, the region must keep one eye on costs and justify the business benefits of implementing high technology and the other on growth and being able to scale existing technologies.
Talk about high technology such as virtualisation, optimisation, enterprise wi-fi, video conferencing, Web 2.0 and voice over IP (VoIP) and many companies will say they have these latest and greatest on their wish lists. A few will say they are planning to implement in the future. A very few will say they have, or are about to have their next-generation network up and running and are looking to the next step forward.
But as Philip Klingensmith, CEO of TSI Compass says, enterprises that wait and see get left behind in the dust. Enterprises that take the leap which meets their needs will reap exponential benefits in productivity and efficiency.
On the other hand, Samer Halawi, vice president, Inmarsat, Middle East, Africa & Asia Pacific, believes that a measured wait-and-see strategy is better unless an enterprise does not have a legacy system and needs an instant solution that necessitates the leap.
The word ‘needs' is key. Some managers in the Middle Eastern region make costly decisions because they are pushed and pulled by large companies which are product oriented.
"Unless a manager has an engineering or technical degree, that manager is unable to distinguish between the design promised with the product purchase and an infrastructure design provided by a Registered Communications Distribution Designer - Outside Plant Specialist (RCDD/OSP)," says TSI Compass' Klingensmith.
"Furthermore, some managers cannot make a connection between the products purchased and the needs they have. In the future, managers should ask RCDDs to perform needs assessments, then to design open architecture infrastructures into which all standards compliant products may be integrated in order to perform the applications these managers need," he adds.
Most industry veterans believe that enterprise attitude to look at technology for technology's sake is better avoided until everything else works properly.
"It is important to plan at the beginning when looking into investing in new technologies, to ensure they cater for the business needs and will actually reduce costs. Networking is now more sophisticated," says Hamed Diab, Middle East country manager, 3Com.
Gone are the days when companies tended to adopt technology for technology's sake as Halawi says: "Enterprises should invest in new technologies when it makes economic sense and when the value of such an investment has a measurable and justified return on investment."
And he adds that in terms of overcoming the arguments of non-technology managers who are often resistant to change that it is "precisely when network managers can prove to their superiors the financial benefits and the business case that ensue from investment in new technology that such investments would be welcome."
Diab says one should never adopt new technology without clear benefits, however, "enterprises are usually earlier adopters as they tend to want to try new capabilities. There is no real danger as long as the company has done the preparation to ensure return on investment and that it is matched to its needs.
"But it is not always the case that network managers make the business case to non-technical managers. Sometimes the vendor's power of persuasion makes it difficult to reject the charms of implementing the latest technologies," Diab says.
The sway that some vendors might have in influencing high technology spends cannot be underestimated. Too many customers, says Chris Moore, regional director MEA for Extreme Networks, are simply accepting the latest "upgrade" from their existing vendor rather than reviewing their business needs and updating their network to meet those needs.
"Some vendors promote cheap solutions on day one and thrive on upgrade revenues," he warns, suggesting that buyers investigate how the network is used and what is needed, instead of looking at the fastest and latest technology.
"It is wise to monitor the new developments in technology, but don't let it lead the decision. The decision should be led by business needs and if consultants are required they should be impartial and not over-directed," he advises.
But apart from meeting current business needs and cost justifying investments, a new technology buyer should consider what is required to future-proof any investment. The consensus is that open systems are the path to take.
"Use open and standards-based networks," is the advice given by Extreme's Moore. "This will never result in a dead-end vendor locked-in situation. An open and standards-based network will always allow the use of an alternative vendor for a specific solution when needed. The hot areas right now are concerning the use of XML API's for the integration of Virtual Security Resources into the network fabric itself for both Network Admission Control and Day-Zero-Threat mitigation," he says.
Standards-based technologies remain a pre-requisite on the basis that it is no use getting the latest and greatest technology if it does not interface with existing equipment that carries the nuts and bolts of networking in the enterprise.
"There are no consistent standards for the region," warns Klingensmith, "so some managers are being attracted to cheap installations, non standardised products, and product specific designs, which simply will not work. Furthermore, many managers think they have reliable and secure networks when they actually do not. Lastly, codes are not applied uniformly, if at all, and this problem may not manifest itself for years or may cause the building to catch on fire, which is a more immediate issue." he adds.
Klingensmith's answer is that managers should demand to know if the products they are being sold are standards-compliant. Furthermore, they should ask hard questions about security and redundancy, he says. "Managers should plan to install open architecture infrastructures designed by an RCDD. If managers need to assess their current network, they should undertake a system audit by an RCDD," is his advice.
"Hot and exciting technologies that are not standards compliant or that are completely dependent on a proprietary network are doomed to disappointment," he says. "People who sell current technologies would have my hide if I predicted failure for any of them. However, I can say there is no way the managers who adopt open architecture infrastructure will ever have a network that fails because it cannot adapt to current and future technological change," he says.
3Com's Diab also believes the open systems networking route is the optimum and that it places applications like voice, security and optimisation in the network thereby eliminating separate appliances and giving a balanced partition between applications overlaid on and integrated into the network.
But with the network taking on a greater role in enabling business rather than being the transportation solution, Halawi believes enterprises should focus on putting networking solutions at the top of their list when it comes to investing in latest technologies. The same applies to SMBs, he says, because in the Middle East, the SMB achieves enterprise status much quicker than elsewhere.
"These networking solutions should be mobile and capable of offering voice, high-speed data, and video over a single platform. Inmarsat's Broadband Global Area (BGAN) solution offers end-users the ability to send voice, broadband data, and video over portable, small, and light terminals, from anywhere in the world," he points out.
"As we have become a generation that is always on the go, mobility is crucial and increasingly critical to users on the move who need to have fast access to information, particularly in areas where telecommunications and internet connectivity do not exist, are not fast enough or of good quality. In this respect, all wireless technologies are interesting at the moment, including 3G and 4G, WiMax, Mobile TV and BGAN," he says.
Scalability is also a key component in making any decision to implement high technology. "We believe that a solution that does scale is always preferred as the usage and the dependency of the network will continue to grow. However besides scaling in terms of network capacity, scaling should also be considered in terms of availability, security, convergence," says Moore.
Diab agrees. "It is important when initially considering new technology to ensure that it provides room for scalability, which is a key focus for network managers. So from day one, company growth and expansion should always be considered when investing in technology.
Halawi too thinks it is important for managers to forecast ahead as capital expenditures can make a significant difference. As such, it is important to consider networks that will not become obsolete in a short period of time and that have a comprehensive upgrade path.
But as vendors tend to push their own products and high technology solutions, the buyer needs to turn to objective information in adopting technology-leading solutions and avoiding the mistakes of other bleeding edge implementers of the past.
Moore's advice is, besides monitoring the development in technologies, they should also consult the review of analysts like Gartner and IDC on these developments: as this will give them an expert view on the viability of a certain technology. Klingensmith says companies should join world-wide, not-for-profit industry associations, such as BICSI. "This is the best way to stay informed of all new products, not just the ones marketed in the Middle East," he says.
Diab adds that a way of avoiding mistakes is to work with trustworthy third party companies that understand technology as well as the business needs. According to him, network managers do need to pay attention to developments in the technology market and be open minded, but at the same time they must ensure that any investments made in new technology will benefit the organisation in the long term.