It is incredible how connected our lives are today. Increasingly sophisticated wireless devices are becoming common every day tools, leading us to expect — and as business people be expected — to be connected wherever we are. We do not work from a desk, buy things off the shop floor, or move money at the bank teller anymore. At the same time the data, information and applications that are related to all those activities when we perform them online, are no longer sat on a specific server, mainframe, network or PC. It’s all out there, in the cloud.
But what is the cloud? And is it a safe, viable way to enable our connect-on-the-go business lives?
Forrester estimates that 66 percent of workers in the US and Western Europe now work remotely. The mobile workforce in the Middle East is also growing significantly. It is clear that being able to work remotely, and increasingly via mobile platforms, is something that has direct commercial value and gives a competitive edge for businesses. If you are anything like me, I am forever in the field so a remote working life is my normal life.
Let’s look at this issue from a personal perspective: one business professional to another. Changing attitudes and working practices mean many of us find ourselves wanting to be available and able to work online where ever we are in the world. We need that access — to email, to the sales system, to the database, to the corporate intranet — to do our job, to book our flight home, to not miss that sale, to secure the best price. We need that access in any place and at any time, and I am a classic example of why. After all if I weren’t stuck at the airport, or travelling from city to city, country to country, I wouldn’t need to be so connected via my trusty mobile and laptop in the first place. But this means the applications I use and the data I draw on to do my job could reside, and does reside, anywhere and everywhere — in that fuzzy edged, undefined cloud.
Like most employees of course, I don’t really care where they [applications and data] reside as long as I can access them when I need to and that the data and my communications are secure as I log-in from Starbucks at Dubai International Airport or MacDonald’s at Heathrow or the hotel bar in Munich. Never mind cloud-based technology; welcome to my cloud-based life.
In this environment, remote workers and remote devices lead to remote data and remote applications, which places huge strain on IT resources; the IT department can’t be relaxed in their attitude to where/how vital applications and data are held, accessed, or the associated security concerns. They are at the sharp end of the cloud.
And that sharp end is increasingly virtualized. The move towards a more mobile, connected work environment means the enterprise’s assets are less physical and more virtual, and this shift requires a different approach in terms of IT management.
When people talk about businesses becoming Virtual Enterprises it’s generally because the way employees and businesses interact is now so virtual. And so we find ourselves at an interesting point in the evolution of work and the technology that supports us.
As has happened in the past, the change in how we want, and need, to work has raced ahead of some of the key technology components that make remote working — or just accessing your email when a volcano erupts and half the world’s airports shut down — all possible. Workers’ attitudes and the realities of business in this international, always-on world have outstripped the data center and enterprise IP networks’ ability to deliver; and roll-out of new applications and tools is being held back by the same problem. Cloud presents an approach to get around the sheer scale of the challenge.
So what is cloud? Ask 100 people and you may get 100 different definitions, but for me cloud is a way of making data or IT resources available by enabling almost immediate access when it is requested and/or required through internet technologies. So rather than having to purchase and install more software licenses when you increase headcount in a given department — for example — cloud means you can utilize and access spare application licenses stored on another department’s servers without having to holistically re-configure the network connections. Or you can access them from servers belonging to another company entirely through a pay-as-you-use model such as SaaS (Software as a Service).
The increased flexibility, managed and predictable cost, and considerable reduction on both CAPEX and OPEX have seen demand and adoption of cloud-services — or public cloud — offered by services providers, IT companies and consultancies grow significantly over the last 18 months. And it is easy to understand why. Why incur significant cost, and endure complexity and a long implementation, purchasing servers, software licenses, training and network technology and possibly even additional staff to roll-out a new application, when you can call your services provider and ask them to make a specific application available to certain staff and know that they’ll be able to do so within hours? For the cloud-surfing-remote-worker the simplicity of being able to access that application simply by logging-on, or being able to request and get that access at the click of a few keys is a revolution.
Cloud takes away a lot of the pain and the problems of enabling the business at the speed required in a highly digitized economy, but not all. Companies still need the right network to assure connectivity, and not all operations can viably be transitioned to public, services-based cloud solutions. Security, regulation, internal policy and legal demands can all impact whether third-party cloud-services are appropriate or even feasible. But if a public, internet based cloud is out, delivering a cloud solution and still gaining the flexibility, management and cost benefits is still possible by developing a private cloud — adopting the same basic principle, but over company-owned assets only is an alternative.
Either way to embrace cloud, empower the workforce, and secure the flexible access to IT resource they need, businesses need the right networking technology in place. While many people switch off as soon as they hear the word network, in a world where information is as vital to the survival of a business as water is to people, the network is our pipeline, and the switches, directors, controllers and other boxes that create the network system are the plumbing.
Whichever type of cloud you select, (private, public or a hybrid of both) you first need a virtualized IT infrastructure. Without virtualization managing the sheer volume of data, low server utilization, and number of devices (every PC, mobile, laptop, IP-phone), network complexity and the number of single points of failure makes such an aim unfeasible and unachievable. But virtualization itself is a process that is complex, and traditional approaches to network and data center design can’t support virtualized systems
Before we all despair and give up to the idea that we will spend the rest of our days watching digital timers whirling away while awaiting connection — the technology is now in place that can make this all happen; technology has caught up with the remote revolution.
In a true virtual enterprise, the network infrastructure must be cloud-optimized through a highly virtualized environment that is simple, flexible and scalable, offering high performance and secure connectivity. By virtualizing the infrastructure, IT departments have the flexibility to move assets around the enterprise, and ensure there is enough resource to support them. Simplicity is the key, and with the right management application, they can even do it via their mobile! However, it doesn’t stop there.
The cloud-optimized network is designed to reduce cost, improve agility, and extend virtualization across the data center. A key enabling technology is Ethernet fabric — a new approach to network design that is revolutionizing data center architectures. Compared to classic hierarchical Ethernet networks, the Ethernet fabric delivers higher levels of performance, utilization, availability, and simplicity.
By enabling the virtual data center and providing a platform for cloud migration, Ethernet fabrics ensure always-on availability and simplify network management, which in turn increases end-user productivity while reducing operational costs. So as far as the data center is concerned, if virtualization revolutionized computing, Ethernet fabrics are revolutionizing networking.
I need the cloud to do my job; and a cloud-optimized network means more access, more speed and, halleluiah, fewer network issues that prevent me from connecting to applications and systems when I need to. But if you try and build a cloud on old plumbing and traditional network designs, then you’ll just end up with problems raining down while your IT department drowns…in data, in support calls, in system failures.
Fabrics are perfect for delivering a virtualized infrastructure, so we can all enter the cloud and embrace the evolution; and more importantly have ubiquitous access to the applications and data we all rely on. All of which means you can access that proposal off of a colleagues PC, phone, laptop, or the server direct. You won’t know where you have accessed it from, but you won’t care, because you’re too busy working. And that’s the point. Welcome to the cloud!
Ali Ahmar is the Regional Sales Manager of Middle East, North Africa and Pakistan for Brocade. Ahmar is based at Brocade’s regional headquarters in Dubai, UAE and has overall sales and operations responsibility for the region.