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Managing a Chaotic Network Environment: Choose Reinforcements Wisely

Updated: Jul 10, 2020

In 2020, enterprise telecommunications infrastructure is a communications ecosystem in a state of flux. This expanding, often vast telecom estate requires the proper management of legacy lines and circuits even as a host of vendors introduce new technologies and strategies into the mix. CIOs know well that network and mobile expenses are two of the largest components of enterprise IT spend.

At a time of rapid technological change and the convulsions of Covid19, network optimization is more important than ever. But such initiatives – whether the relatively modest switching of circuits or a software-defined transformation of the entire network – are often starting from a disordered place and are sometimes themselves chaotic. Network sprawl and siloed data have left too many companies operating in the dark. For many CIO’s, such an operational landscape can resemble a fast-moving, confusing battlefield.

I was thinking about all this last week as the United States commemorated the 157th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg. Watching experts from the Gettysburg National Military Park discuss the battle on Facebook Live was like experiencing the action in real-time. And it struck me that just about every engagement over the course of the three day’s battle was characterized by a lack of information, difficulties in troop coordination, and a chaotic operational environment. It was a web of contingencies that morphed into a giant battle that was part of a larger campaign, all within the context of a wider war.

In fact, Gettysburg seemed an apt metaphor for the ongoing struggles with network connectivity – the daily fight against performance degradation, under/over utilization, bandwidth exhaustion, and other costly inefficiencies. And then there are the ongoing efforts at network optimization at a time when digital transformation is reshaping the business landscape. The telecom estate is under pressure, experiencing rapid change from a sudden wave of homeshored workers, mobile-first strategies, cloud migrations, unified communications, the Internet of Things (IoT), software defined networks (SDNs), and much more.

Waves of Mobile Workers & the Movement of Troops Home

The Battle of Gettysburg starts uncertainly on July 1, 1863. Toward the end of the first day, there is mayhem at the center of the town as almost 30,000 Confederates surge forward. The Army of the Potomac’s First Corps – almost 20,000 men – is ordered to retreat to a place called Cemetery Hill. But the retreating troops don’t know where that is and have no idea how to get there. The troops are operating blind.

Meanwhile, this July of 2020, the great work-at-home experiment continues to play out in real-time. The retreat from bricks-and-mortar locations began in earnest in February, when Covid19 smashed into our collective consciousness. With an already rapidly expanding mobile workforce now joined by millions of these homeshored workers, we’re seeing nothing less than the outlines of the future of work.

But the addition of so many home networks and mobile workers has brought a host of attendant challenges to the enterprise IT environment. An already complex operational landscape has become even more convoluted. Quality access to strategic enterprise applications must be maintained (thanks to UCaaS, dynamic video conferencing is commonplace today), even as usage patterns and quality of service issues complicate the disposition of homeshored and mobile troops.

For many enterprises, everything feels disorganized. Engineering-related issues boggle the mind. Packets are highly sensitive to QoS issues. Circuits must be managed. Gear at end of contract may need to be replaced. Telecom billing can seem incomprehensible. Service order placement needs fixing. A fully meshed connectivity matrix that many aspire to seems a distant hope. As bandwidth bottlenecks negatively affect productivity, enterprises still grappling with the very concept of digital transformation understand they need more help with their networking services.

The call goes out for reinforcements. But no local incumbent ILEC carrier is coming to rescue businesses. This is a new kind of battlefield. Vendor management must be prioritized. As a result, greater visibility into network sourcing will be essential.

In the meantime, by the end of the first day at Gettysburg, the Union Army has taken up defensive positions just south of the town. Reinforcements arrive. Union General George Gordon Meade, ornery and goggle-eyed as a snapping turtle, has only been at the head of the army for a few days, having just replaced the dithering Joe Hooker. On the other hand, Confederate General Robert E. Lee is putting together a fairly simple battle plan for the next day as his army consolidates. In particular, he orders his First Corps Commander, James Longstreet, to prepare to sweep up the Emmitsburg Road, clearing it of Union troops.

Reinforcements Stream onto the Field: the Search for Actionable Data

On the morning of the second day at Gettysburg, July 2, 1863, there’s a lack of clarity on both sides. The Third Maine of the Army of the Potomac sends a reconnaissance into a place called Pitzer Woods to figure out where the Confederate troops are, and in what numbers. A Union general by the name of Dan E. Sickles needs to make a quick decision. Should he move his Third Corps to the high ground around a peach orchard to protect the Union’s left flank, or take up a defensive position on a place called Little Round Top? Sickles does what any leader might – he seeks out more information. Actionable data is everything. As a result, he decides to disobey orders and move his 10,000 men off Cemetery Ridge to slightly higher ground along the Emmitsburg Road.

This summer of 2020, as a host of vendors crowd a field now dominated by the homeshoring model, efforts at network optimization feel no less confounding. The massive work-at-home migration has settled into a new normal, even as the mobile revolution continues its quiet, parallel rush forward. Provider after provider offers assistance to stressed companies. For enterprises, the options seem limitless. Cable and wireless providers are everywhere, each with their own approach and standards and products.

At the same time, each enterprise these vendors seek to reinforce have varying, sometimes peculiar needs. Mergers and acquisitions across the economy mean leadership and organizational changes are common, and decision-making is sometimes delayed, adding yet another twist to the drama. Most companies have network-wide connectivity initiatives, but many need more guidance on how best to pursue them. Questions abound. How best to understand the potential of the emerging digital environment while at the same time managing all the oncoming offers of assistance?

The battle space is constantly changing. UC and IoT vendors charge into the fray with their own solutions. Enterprises feel overwhelmed – they know their network sourcing solutions, such as they are, need to support automated workflows and process management, along with things like basic data entry and transactions. Above all, companies and their potential vendors need to share a view of all relevant processes, data, and timelines that are integral to supporting successful bids and purchases. Inventory needs to be accurate.

Managing all the data across the enterprise is a huge challenge. It seems network sourcing tools and processes can barely keep up with all the bids. Documenting all network services and connectivity options might seem an impossible task. Help desk for mobility can be a quagmire for the enterprise. It’s an informational whirlwind. Many companies grow defensive, unsure how to proceed amidst the mayhem.

The fog of war grows thicker.

Back at Gettysburg, the Union Army has established a long defensive position in the shape of a fishhook. By late afternoon on July 2, 1863, fighting rages at places like Little Round Top, the Wheatfield, the Peach Orchard, Devil’s Den, Culp’s Hill, and Cemetery Hill. The “eyes and ears” of Lee’s army, the Cavalry Division of the dashing J.E.B. Stuart, is nowhere to be found because it’s off circling the east flank of the Union Army, leaving Lee blind. Some of Lee’s decisions are based on faulty intelligence, made worse by Stuart’s continued absence. By the end of the second day, the Confederates are unable to break the Union lines.

The Need for Effective Network Sourcing

One thing has become clear amidst the network optimization maelstrom – network transformation decisions need to be based on fact rather than guesswork. Insightful BI reporting needs to bring together essential details at the place and time of highest impact.

Yet too often there’s no single, shared system or platform within which buyers and sellers can work together. Connectivity options are everywhere. What’s needed is a standardized vendor ordering system. Where is the central portal through which stakeholders can view circuit order details?

In such an environment, enterprises aren’t sure how best to manage unstructured network quotes and complex bids. Network service pricing is a mix of this and that, with each vendor offering different products, order processes and formats, distinct order portals, varying promises on changing time-frames. Inevitably, pricing and bids get mixed up.

Understandably, leaders start asking more questions. Which vendors seem to offer the best resources to address bandwidth bottlenecks? There are a range of options – wired and wireless, fiber and traditional telephony. But bandwidth management and network services are complicated. All those service providers and carriers have their own unique definitions of bandwidth and circuits. Coherent network sourcing means skillfully managing a digital supply chain of bandwidth needs for the business.

The questions keep coming.

What data traffic related inefficiencies are causing latency and traffic congestion, so unacceptable in today’s distributed connection models?

What about data packet security? Why is it dependent on client-side protocols or firewalls to analyze and interrogate packets?

Which service provider’s operational and billing support system will work best?

What about logistics? Ordering the appropriate network elements that match both tactical and strategic needs is no easy task.

Different carriers offer circuits with different universal service order codes (USOCs) and other details.

Companies know they need additional reinforcements in the form of third-party software solutions that can help them confront challenges related to sourcing and quoting. Yet a lack of quoting and ordering standards creates a host of new issues amidst the spiraling confusion of networking options. It becomes obvious that network sourcing cannot be a silo within the broader management of IT.

Ultimately, there are too many slow responses to client requests. Issues around governance are always in play. Timing on the battlefield is everything. Yet too many strategic sourcing solutions are absorbed into the confusion rather than clarifying it. Above all, it’s clear that no one particular vendor can handle all aspects of networking and connectivity. Just imagine today’s enterprise landscape, with all the devices and employees at every location, every option related to wired and wireless connectivity. Where is the single platform view that integrates all the IT data that captures assets, usage, and costs?

Nonetheless, decisions must be made in this imperfect setting. Network optimization cannot wait at a time when digital transformation is reshaping the economy. Homeshoring is not going away. The Mobile First Enterprise of the future is just about upon us. Enterprises must push forward.

Leadership Decisions: Seeing through the Fog of War

The afternoon of July 3, 1863, at Gettysburg, Robert E. Lee gives the fateful order for Pickett’s Charge of some 12,500 men. One watches with a sense of foreboding for the South. The Union lines hold, and Lee is eventually forced to retreat. And yet the Union Army also has suffered greatly over the course of these three chaotic days.

In Intruder in the Dust, the great American novelist William Faulker wrote that the afternoon of July 3, 1863 – moments before Pickett’s troops set out on their doomed mission – holds a special place in the collective southern imagination:

For every Southern boy fourteen years old, not once but whenever he wants it, there is the instant when it’s still not yet two o’clock on that July afternoon in 1863, the brigades are in position behind the rail fence, the guns are laid and ready in the woods and the furled flags are already loosened to break out and Pickett himself with his long oiled ringlets and his hat in one hand probably and his sword in the other looking up the hill waiting for Longstreet to give the word and it’s all in the balance, it hasn’t happened yet, it hasn’t even begun yet, it not only hasn’t begun yet but there is still time for it not to begin against that position and those circumstances….

When it comes to network optimization, one thing has become clear this historic summer of 2020 – charging ahead with disjointed, ill-considered initiatives can be as reckless as Pickett’s Charge. This is a complex battle that will take experience and smarts. Some leaders will be haunted by the consequences of rash decisions. Some companies won’t survive at all. Much is at stake as digital transformation proceeds apace.

But for some businesses, it will be a turning point leading to victory in a larger war. For CIOs, there is still time to make the right strategic decisions. Enterprises that make the correct calls will achieve the service improvements, network agility, and cost reduction associated with successful network optimization and a truly digitally transformed enterprise.

So do your due diligence. A flexible, robust, business-class set of solutions is just over the next hill.

Choose your vendor reinforcements wisely.

Image: Section of the ‘Battle of Gettysburg’ Cyclorama painting by the French artist Paul Philippoteaux depicting Pickett's Charge (Gettysburg National Military Park).

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