Network Evolution

Building the infrastructure for the changing face of IT

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Enterprise network management in the wake of vendor consolidation

Consolidation is a driving force among networking vendors, but network professionals have to actively consider how those changes affect enterprise network management.

Getting people back to nature has required a significant boost in network connectivity for REI, the outdoor gear retailer based in Kent, Wash., known for its co-op business approach and environmental stewardship programs as much as for its outerwear and camping equipment. To enhance its corporate wide area network, the company turned to Viptela's software-defined WAN appliance in 2016.

In 2017, Cisco acquired Viptela in a deal worth $610 million. But the acquisition has been worth something more than money to REI, according to Adam Burton, an IT network manager for the company. He sees the acquisition as validation of REI's decision to purchase Viptela products.

REI has 147 stores across the country and 6 million members in its employee co-op program. In addition to its physical locations, the retailer manages an online store and hosts numerous outdoor activities and educational programs globally. Enterprise network management is paramount, according to Burton.

Moving to software-defined WAN (SD-WAN) has helped the retailer reduce MPLS costs by 60% and double the bandwidth it can deliver to remote sites, Burton said. Viptela's application-aware routing makes it easy for IT to shift data to the most efficient and available WAN link, he added.

SD-WAN's network segmentation capabilities also help network management at REI's physical stores, Burton said. Using the SD-WAN controller to automate configuration, REI separates secure segments in the network to manage individual internet of things (IoT) devices. It can set up a segment for an exercise bike, a set of weights or other outdoor equipment that has IP addresses.

"We have a lot of product vendors that have bikes and other sporting equipment with wireless capabilities that require network connectivity," Burton said. "By being able to segment the network, we can accommodate all those IoT devices."

But beyond Viptela's SD-WAN capabilities, the vendor's merger with Cisco was another positive development for REI, Burton said. Moving forward, he's hoping Cisco and Viptela will do more feature integration into the SD-WAN appliance.

"I'm looking for them to have a malware/firewall feature where I can build a firewall and policy management in the SD-WAN appliance," Burton added.

Networking vendor landscape evolution

[C]ustomers don't need more networks, they just need different network stuff.
Zeus Kerravalafounder, ZK Research

The networking equipment market has consolidated in the last three years, and mergers and acquisitions continue to be a driving force among networking vendors. IT professionals have to understand what consolidation means for enterprise network management.

The global enterprise network equipment market is forecast to reach about $41 billion by 2024, according to a 2018 report by Global Industry Analysts Inc. The adoption of cloud computing technologies, software-defined networking (SDN) architecture and the increase of digital business are driving demand for routers, switches, wireless LANs and equipment to enhance applications.

The evolving vendor landscape might not be a bad thing for customers, according to Zeus Kerravala, founder of ZK Research, adding that consolidation among networking vendors has been long overdue because there have been too many players.

Enterprise network management is always affected by vendor mergers and acquisitions, and customers are often unclear what will happen to support for products they have invested in. To deal with change, many find it beneficial to stay in close touch with their vendors, finding networking staff with expertise with specific products and focusing on the best path for any needed equipment upgrades.

Over the past five to 10 years, several disruptive forces have occurred -- including the shift to SDN and SD-WAN, increased mobility, Wi-Fi usage and cloud networking -- in an otherwise traditional network market, Kerravala said. "This has given rise to a number of new vendors. But customers don't need more networks; they just need different network stuff. So now there are too many suppliers without a large enough increase in demand. Consolidation had to happen."

Vendor consolidation

Vendors eye consolidation to streamline business, add innovation and expand their markets, he added. This gives enterprise customers some validation that new technology is here to stay. "If SDNs were only available from small startups, and none of the big vendors thought there was a real opportunity, it may make a customer doubt as to whether the trend is sustainable," he said. Acquisitions by large vendors legitimize new technologies, particularly if a company like Cisco is willing to disrupt its base, he added. 

Given this demand, networking vendors are building strategies that include acquisitions to grow product lines. In addition to established networking vendors Cisco and Juniper acquiring companies to expand their SD-WAN and SDN presence, other contenders for market share include Aruba Networks, a Hewlett Packard Enterprise (HPE) company, and Extreme Networks. A reinvented Extreme, now worth roughly $1 billion, was formed after a shopping spree in the last two years of diverse vendors and products. Its acquisitions included Avaya Networks' business, including switches, software for network management and access control and the SDN portfolio Fabric Connect; Zebra Technologies wireless LAN business; and Broadcom's Brocade data center business.

The emergence of the larger, more financially viable Extreme Networks could be a real plus for the industry, Kerravala added.

"If you're a $200 million company, [for example], you couldn't get the Walmart account," Kerravala said. "As a $1 billion company, Extreme will get favorable pricing from the component vendors. And from a network manager's point of view, if nothing else, the new Extreme Networks gives an alternative." That might create more attractive pricing options for customers, he added.

Making vendor transitions work

Despite the upheaval in the vendor market, some network managers take industry consolidation in stride and evaluate their options as vendors offer their visions for the future. Indeed, managers are looking at the age of their equipment and their enhanced security and policy management needs as much as the vendors they use.

In 2014, CoxHealth, a five-hospital health system with 10,000 employees in Springfield, Mo., saw a great deal of vendor upheaval. The company installed switches from Brocade and Ruckus. When Brocade later purchased Ruckus, CoxHealth still worked with both, but as one company.

Broadcom then bought Brocade in 2016 and spun off the Brocade core switches to Extreme Networks in 2017. Arris International purchased Ruckus' campus access switches that same year. John Liehr, senior network team lead for Cerner ITWorks managing the network architecture at CoxHealth, said, as a result, he's dealing with two networking companies for now.

But the transition has been smooth, he added. "We've been working with the people we dealt with when they were part of the same company."

The health system will look at refreshing the core and campus access switches in the next year or two, he added.

The Extreme sales reps have discussed a new wireless product for CoxHealth, Liehr said, but he's not interested in changing vendors at this point because the health system has Cisco wireless switches deployed throughout its locations.

Aruba also has reached out, Liehr added. "I'm sure at some point we'll hear everyone's story. What I'm interested in learning is how the combined company with Brocade and Avaya plans to move forward as Extreme."

Sorting out HPE's Aruba integration

At the University of Notre Dame, vendor consolidation has meant managing two different vendors for infrastructure needs. The university is a Cisco shop, but uses access points from HPE's Aruba for the university's Joyce Center basketball arena, according to Tom Klimek, network manager for Notre Dame.

HPE bought Aruba in 2015, but Notre Dame recently hired an engineer with extensive Aruba experience, so the merger hasn't affected the university too much, Klimek said.

Organizations that are tied to their HPE switches will hear a strong sales pitch from Aruba, as the company has streamlined its wired and wireless products.

At another Indiana campus, Mark Spencer, manager of campus network engineering at Indiana University, said the university plans to issue a proposal request in 2018 for upgrading more than 1,500 HPE ProCurve switches.

The university started deploying the ProCurve 5400 Series switches across its campus networks in Bloomington and Indianapolis more than 10 years ago. While the switches have been reliable all these years, the networking group needs the ability to more quickly identify devices and apply security policies in a more automated way, Spencer said.

On the wireless side, he added, the university uses Aruba access points and has been happy with their performance. The university also deployed Aruba's ClearPass policy management tool a few years ago, and Spencer is encouraged that the ClearPass management capability is also available for the university's wired HPE switches.

"All our wireless access points are plugged into the ProCurve switches," he said. "What we are looking for is the ability to apply security policies seamlessly between our wired and wireless networks. We also want to take a look at automating the provisioning of switches."

Enterprise customers will continue to work through the impact that mergers from the last several years have had on their operations. By maintaining contact with vendors, finding networking staff with expertise in the products they have to use, and focusing on how to best upgrade equipment, enterprise IT managers can reduce the chaos that might come with a changing vendor landscape.

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