The need for speed


29 Jul 2003

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Even as the network technology engineers proudly offer progressively faster data transmission speeds, their marketing and consulting colleagues are saying to a cautious market “never mind the bandwidth, feel the quality of service”.

Business IT has matured to a great degree and we all now recognise that sheer connectedness is the basis of its essential contribution to our organisations, whether between colleagues or between the business and its current customers and suppliers. To paraphrase the worthy decade-old Sun Microsystems slogan, it is really on the network that we do our business computing. In fact, a computer, however powerful, that could not be connected to other computers and devices would be a real throwback.

So in many respects the IT industry’s inevitable focus on the ‘go faster’ elements has shifted up to the network level in recent years. The raw data speed capability of local area networks (LANs) has been increasing in tenfold leaps, with 100Mbps (megabits per second) now about the norm in general business and quietly morphing up to 1Gbps (1,000Mbps). This is ‘gigabit to the desktop’, to use a common vendor marketing phrase.

New installations and upgrades are going for the higher speed, according to Cisco’s country manager, Mike Galvin. “Costs are reducing and there is a major element of future-proofing for just perhaps a 20-30pc premium over standard 100Mbps equipment,” he says. For the moment at least this is at the top end of the current capacity of category 6 cabling, so the next giant leap is likely to be to fibre optics and 10 gigabits, at the moment the prerogatives of the central, high end network backbones and servers, storage area networks and so on.

Leading network equipment manufacturers such as Cisco and 3Com are already building upgrade capacity into this year’s products that foresees 10Gbps out to the edges of networks, ie any device.

So what are we going to do with all this bandwidth, then? Push lots of data around it, is the first crude answer, because rich content is a rapidly growing proportion of all of our applications. That includes simple things such as colour documents with illustrations, HTML (web format) pages, emails and scanned documents (much larger files than if they were electronic originals). But we are increasingly using colour photography while computer aided design is common to many professions and industries, so multi-megabyte file sizes are becoming ubiquitous.

Video is already mainstream in many larger organisations, from product demonstrations to training to the MD’s rallying calls to the troops. Videoconferencing (two-way video streams) has yet to reach its long-promised potential, but it is perfectly feasible and high quality at these network speeds.

But there are other, more essential forms of traffic that depend on our networks: email is almost as critical as telephony, transactions are often real-time and 24/7, from airline or hotel reservations to bank ATM networks, while other business-critical applications require similar high-level performance. Supply chains add inter-dependencies while new developments bring special requirements and traffic volumes.

“Virtually everything with a digital or electrical heartbeat will soon be connected,” says Brian Jordan of Sun Microsystems, “from mobile phones to automobiles, thermostats to razor blades with RFID tags on them. The resulting network traffic will require highly scalable, reliable network solutions. Fast networks will be a prerequisite to cater for the vast amounts of information that will need to be carried, analysed and turned into valuable services for different communities.”

The key concept is convergence or multi-service networks and the addition of digital voice telephony to the range of data, all of which uses IP (internet protocol) as its common language, so the same physical network can carry everything. “We know that voice has to have priority at all times, because the human ear picks up on any tiny latency and it’s distracting at best,” explains Stefan Callery, 3Com technical manager, “and exactly the same thing applies to videoconferencing. But the answer today is not to reserve bandwidth solely for voice — which would have to be enough for your peak traffic — but to identify and prioritise those packets of voice data all the way through. In essence that means smarter network infrastructure rather than simply greater bandwidth, although both work together. Quality of service is the key concept and it is delivered by giving each application the priority it requires.”

Since a voice call always has top priority, for example, the system will even drop or delay transmission of less essential traffic (eg, email, internet or database search) so that it gets that priority even at moments of congestion. In practice, each application fixes or re-transmits any missing data before any user is even likely to notice.

That simple enough concept is carried out through smart management software at the server or network level and throughout appliances such as switches. In essence, the user organisation sets the priorities to suit its own critical functions and preferences and the network system recognises them according to the application and content (telephony, images, database query, transactions and so on). A huge additional benefit is that these rules can be applied universally, say across branches in a wide area network (WAN), and will apply automatically even if a piece of equipment is moved to a new network location.

The next logical step is that those sets of rules that define an organisation and its business processes are applicable over any network. Brendan McKeefry, senior consultant with Hewlett-Packard Services (HP), points out that it could be over a temporary or virtual network and in any location. The joint HP and Cisco iBuilding project, for example, is based on the concept of ‘the intelligent building’ already configured for high-speed, multi-service networking and internet access.

“In theory, you could just move in with your applications and data — and the networking rules that are all your own,” McKeefry explains. “So networks are no longer all about feeds and speeds — that’s just the mechanics. What matters is more efficient and appropriate delivery of content to where it’s required, which speeds up your business processes. But you can also dynamically change those processes and alter the network rules to match, with minimal if any physical changes, giving tomorrow’s business enormous flexibility regardless of its scale.”

That’s true networking, aiming well beyond the traditional restrictions of physical networks and their architecture.

By Leslie Faughnan