Beyond Technical Debt: Tips For Successful Network Integration

Keeping up with the pace of change to keep your business moving


The network continues to expand beyond its traditional borders and accelerate in terms of complexity. As we make the move to digitalization, we face many challenges, some technological and some organizational. One of the biggest is the concept of 'technical debt,' a term borrowed from programming that relates to technology that makes change harder. It shows up in three primary ways, causing additional difficulty for today’s network administrators.

The first and most costly way that technical debt shows up is the network infrastructure itself. Hardware such as routers, switches, and other appliances require significant capital expenditures and are intended to be deployed for a minimum of five to seven years, in most cases.

Another manifestation of technical debt is the IT management systems built around the network infrastructure. Oftentimes, this involves custom scripts, order management systems, change management tools, monitoring platforms and other various databases and instrumentation to keep the network running.

A third manifestation is the very lifeblood of most organizations: the applications running on the network. There are often applications running that cannot be shut down or run on legacy systems, causing pain for IT operations that are tasked with keeping everything running seamlessly.

Growing Pains

The fast-moving network infrastructure of today, in contrast to the expenditures of the past, calls for flexible, scalable hardware and software. Based on current business needs, network solutions are more likely to be integrated with brownfield, legacy environments. However, blending new and existing equipment is a much larger task than ever before. As technology evolves, best-of-breed solutions are being developed at a much quicker pace, sometimes faster than IT teams can evaluate, purchase and integrate.

Let’s use a relatable consumer example here. Imagine that you bought a TV two years ago, the best one you could afford. Before you get it out of the box and set up, it seems there is already an upgraded model with new features you couldn’t previously afford, on sale for less than you originally paid. The same is true for organizations that have established networks. And depending on the purchase approval cycle, new equipment that has been evaluated and ordered is essentially outdated before it even gets installed on the network. Now consider the legacy hardware and software that is still relevant within the network. Most organizations today can’t afford to rip and replace existing equipment. Rather, it is necessary to look at new solutions through the lens of 'What will work in my existing environment with the least amount of downtime and set-up AND will still be relevant when it arrives?'

Upgrading universally across the entire network spectrum is next to impossible, as it would be in any industry that depends on technology. Hence, organizations big and small are experiencing technical debt.

Managing Today’s Complex Network

It is always tricky to combine old and new together, but the goal of integrating equipment is not to dumb down the new tools but to simplify the older and more cumbersome tools. Efficiency is the goal.

Financial efficiency is a goal as well, so let’s take a look at how to simplify your network expenditure:

1. Discover needs and get buy-in. Business needs usually determine IT priorities, which will determine where the IT budget will be allocated for new and improved service offerings. Applications today usually provide options that support virtualization-based platforms in either public or private clouds. Network management tools are moving to consolidated models that provide more robust, flexible platforms in order to support multiple network vendors while moving away from proprietary and home-grown solutions.

2. Shoot for seamless. Envision a long-term strategy, whether it is moving toward software-defined networking, a hybrid solution or simply upgrading equipment. Require programmatic interfaces from existing network suppliers to ensure your existing equipment and new purchases can be seamlessly integrated.

3. Assess early and often. Conduct an exacting assessment to determine what 'debt' your organization must continue to live with, like specific network infrastructure and in-house applications. Then determine what hardware or software can be taken offline or replaced with the least amount of impact.

As an example, consider the software that translates high-level requests into the low-level commands required to perform an operation: the abstraction layer. The most common abstraction layer is the application programming interface (API) between an application and the operating system. High-level calls are made to the operating system, which executes the necessary instructions to perform the task. While there are multiple layers of abstraction, today’s applications are often programmed in the same way. For example, selecting menu options and dragging icons around the screen can write a program. These movements may be translated into a high-level language that is then translated into a low-level language and further translated into machine language. The farther away from the machine language of the computer that an operation is programmed, the more instructions are needed to execute a particular task.

Then add in the interaction of the operating system, which itself may be executing 10 times as many instructions as necessary, and we have a better understanding as to why, even on a fast computer, a user may be able to press the keyboard keys faster than the program can accept the input. Considering modern personal computers execute upwards of two billion instructions per second, compared to the first PCs that executed one million, the extra machine cycles are absorbed layer to layer, each one telling the next one what to do.

When legacy equipment is involved, IT teams have to think about distinctive methods, procedures, and operations directly correlated to the number of unique vendors in their network, plus unique functions. Load balancers, switches, and routers are dimensional. In other words, even if you have a Cisco router, its switches have disparate ways of operating because they are not the same product. Wouldn’t it be great to go to a one-to-many model rather than a one-for-one model?

Teams need to identify an abstraction layer that removes the management of all the solutions to a point where there is commonality in order to gain efficiency. Once that is identified, network operations can then be continuously refreshed, even if there is older equipment embedded in the network below it. With the proper abstraction, your organization can handle heterogeneous networks because it has abstracted the management of the solution.

Making Everything Old New Again

As enterprises head toward digital transformation while operating with brownfield equipment, there are three primary steps to take:

Define: Conceive an IT strategy that is closely aligned with the dynamic business needs of your organization and allocate IT budget toward revenue-driving opportunities.

Unify: Create a united front in which the data center, WAN and LAN teams all are working toward a common goal of improved application delivery and agility. If possible, take it a step further by consolidating networking platforms, management and service delivery platforms.

Adopt: Take up DevOps principles for continuous integration and deployment by selecting platforms that are programmable and work across multi-vendor networks. Since brownfield network devices do not have an API available, automation can talk directly to each device using its own CLI/semantics. Through this consolidation and by migrating away from closed platforms, you will better enable automation and orchestration across the IT infrastructure.

Network management today is simply not possible without automation and greater control. Next-generation solutions have come to the rescue with abstraction that automates mundane and time-intensive networking tasks. These solutions relieve the burden of technical debt by integrating brownfield and newer network components, creating greater efficiency and agility.


About the author:

Olivier Huynh Van is the visionary inventor of Gluware technology and leads R&D for Glue Networks. Previously, Olivier was the CTO of Yelofin Networks, and has 20 years experience designing and managing mission critical global networks for ADM Investor Services, Groupe ODDO & Cie, Natixis, Oxoid and Deutsche Bank. Olivier holds a Master’s Degree in Electronics, Robotics and Information Technology from ESIEA in Paris, France.


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