It’s Not Sexy, But Analytics and Monitoring are Key to Hybrid Cloud Infrastructure
by Peter Burrows
As a veteran tech journalist, it’s not too often that I’m shocked by what I hear at conferences. But I sat up when ONUG co-founder Nick Lippis asked the assembled IT executives at the user group’s fall conference how many of them spent $100 million a year on network analytics and monitoring software. Nine hands went up. Dozens more went up when Lippis asked how many spent more than $10 million.
That’s a lot of money for companies to spend on tools just to understand what’s going on inside their corporate networks, but that’s the state of IT infrastructure these days. Big customers, like those that attend ONUG, are caught between relying on proven providers of proprietary equipment providers that can’t or won’t provide full transparency (they’d rather charge for their own baked-in tools), and newer, less battle-tested open technologies that are not yet fully-baked.
This gap has to be filled, if companies are to take full advantage of seminal technology changes such as the cloud, the Internet of Things and machine learning. The good old days when companies ran a few dozen apps designed to run on a fixed IT infrastructure are long gone. Increasingly, traffic is made up of mashed-up micro services from around the cloud, delivered to a bewildering stew of devices, from smartphones to robots to driverless cars. “It’s going to become impossible for anyone to understand everything end-to-end,” said FedEx senior vice president of Enterprise Infrastructure Services Kevin Humphries in a pre-recorded talk at ONUG. The complexity will be so distributed that in five years, he doesn’t think the term “enterprise networking” will even be a thing.
The only way to deal with that complexity will be by having visibility to what’s happening in the network at all times. That will require automation to handle the bulk of the work, said many attendees, but there will also be a critical role for a new super-breed of networking experts. Rather than only know how to configure and troubleshoot networking hardware, they must have far deeper understanding of the software coursing through those networks. Engineering schools such as New York University now offer a new course of study called “full stack engineering” to fill this need, and companies including General Electric now pay for old-guard networking staffers to take coding classes offered by online companies such as Udacity and General Assembly.
They’ll need those analytics and monitoring tools to do the work, and companies such as Forward Networks and Thousand Eyes are beginning to answer the call. ONUG’s members have agreed to fund creation of a lab where application makers—both commercial, and in-house–can test their code using real data, running on various types of networking hardware.
Don’t expect this new corner of the industry to explode onto the scene. If there’s anything we’ve learned from the software-defined networking craze that started five years ago, it’s that customers take their time before changing the way they build and run their networks. The best example may be the market for SD-WAN technology, which has been the hottest corner of the new open network ecosystem. While large phone carriers and corporations are using these products to lower the cost of connecting remote data centers, corporate offices and retail stores.
Yet so far, total revenues for the dozen or so SD-WAN vendors are less than $200 million, said executives from a few of these companies. That’s chickenfeed, given that many large companies, such as Wall Street firms, spend many billions of dollars every year.
Analytics and monitoring vendors will also need to do more than just come up with nifty algorithms and products. GE’s Chris Drumgoole told attendees how his team got rid of most of the 700 tools they had purchased, as they moved much of their applications from company-owned data centers to Amazon’s cloud. Those that made the cut had to do extra custom development and offer top-notch support. “We have found that our vendor spend has dropped dramatically, but our winners have become much better winners,” he said.
Peter Burrows is a freelance technology journalist and content creator. During a 22 year run at Businessweek and Bloomberg News, he covered marquee companies including Apple, Cisco, Hewlett-Packard and Microsoft. Many of his hundreds of stories dealt with the evolution of enterprise computing and carrier networks, including the rise of the Internet in the 1990s, cloud computing in the 2000s and SDN and NFV this decade. Burrows wrote “Backfire: Carly Fiorina’s High Stakes Battle for the Soul of Hewlett-Packard”, the unauthorized story of Fiorina’s failed tenure at HP, and co-wrote Businessweek’s award-winning memorial issue to Steve Jobs in 2011. Burrows has appeared on PBS News Hour, Charlie Rose and Bloomberg West. Since leaving Bloomberg in 2016, he has written for publications including MIT’s Technology Review, and provided consulting and writing services to a variety of tech-related firms.