Let's set the scene, your name is Harry. You started a fresh produce business after leaving school, you are now in your mid 40’s. You’ve had the ups and downs of business but by making calculated decisions and putting in the work, today you own a market share and 27 store branches to go with it. You’ve come far from the days running the business out of the till. As your business grew and the world of technology kept on offering new and clever solutions to your challenges, this day sees you no longer walking the isles of your store but instead sitting behind a desk doing demand planning, building clever spreadsheets and spending your days trying to find the magic you need to run your business as lean and financially efficient as possible. In this search the same answer came up over and over; you need a business intelligence system. An accounting system that talks to your point of sale infrastructure around the country, a system that measures every aspect of your business. A system that wants to know if your customers are happy, a system tied in with your loyalty program, staff performance metrics, just everything. What do you do, you phone up Riccardo, your IT service provider that has been by your side loyally since you purchased your first Pentium 1 computer for the back office of your first store over 20 years ago. Being in the industry of technology, Riccardo suggests you get an SAP system, put all the information of your day to day operations into it and voila! Every month and every quarter you are blessed with meaningful insights that you can act on, base decisions on that move your business forward. It’s no longer an art, it's not a business anymore where you get 6 or 8 things right out of 10, it's more of a science, one that is based on big data and clever computer algorithms.
Riccardo presented four options to you in terms of housing this system and making it available at every store so that you can collect the data you want, but more importantly, carry out fundamental business functions like invoicing, payment allocations an so on. You now rely on computers and their ability to communicate in order to trade. When the computers stop working you feel it in your pocket, immediately. Because of this critical requirement, you can only look at solutions that are backed by a service level agreement. Solutions that offer a guarantee that your business will run without interruption.
The options on the table are:
Option 1: You buy 27 servers, one per branch, you also install 27 firewalls that are capable of creating your own private, and secure network over the public Internet.
Option 2: You buy one big server, you load all the software on to it, stick it at the head office in an airconditioned vault with a big diesel generator outside for the odd occurrence of electrical load shedding, and importantly; you order an SLA backed network service for each branch that acts as a hub and spoke type network, connecting the branches to the server at the head office.
Option 3: You refrain from trying to build a server room and your own personal data center at the head office, you instead buy some monthly rack space from a telecommunications company with a proper data center environment, and while you’re there they also sell you an SLA backed connectivity package to link all your branches to the data center where the server lives.
Option 4: You buy the software that is needed to run your business on an almost rented basis, this is called Software as a Service. The developers of the platform that runs your business host the software somewhere, and all you need is an internet connection and you’re in business. So you search for SLA backed, guaranteed bandwidth services.
Whichever way you look at this there is a common element at play, you depend on data, and moreover the ability to move that data from one place to the next. The network. Sadly often times the IT service provider will advocate option 1, it’s good income to look after 27 servers and manage 27 firewalls. For you the business owner it’s bad news. It's 27 servers that need UPS’s, 27 assets that need to be insured. 27 servers that may have a hard disk drive failure. 27 servers that may have an SLA, but it comes at a big cost. The buzzwords in this option would be on-prem and managed firewall.
Option 2 then doesn’t seem bad? It actually has been (and still is for many) the defacto standard for the larger business. The business-critical servers live in the same building as the management team, and the rest of the branch offices connect to head office, in a way almost like the business is set up, everyone reports to the head office. Is this a good option? Not really always. Your business is not about building data centers, maintaining dust-free environments, looking after physical security, making sure that there is power all year round and that things stay up even when hardware fails. You may be in the business of one of those things, but more than likely not all of them. As far as the network goes in this option, it's costly, very much so. The buzzword for option 2 is an MPLS VPN
Let's get into option 3 then, this is where most modern businesses are today (arguably even should be), a lot of businesses, in fact, had option one, moved to option 2, and ended up here because a problem in the server room at the head office caused branches to be unable to function one too many times. It’s not a bad place to be at all, mission-critical servers in a proper data center, with the same MPLS network from option 2. The single biggest pitfall in this option is the cost, it's huge. Buzzword Colocation.
So then option 4, you go with software as a service, a magic web-based version of the system you depend on, the developers of this system makes sure it’s always online, it never breaks, they install the updates, make sure the backups are done, you don’t need the branches to have VPN’s to some location. It’s fantastic, it really is… until you open the browser and there is just nothing. But couple this with an SLA backed internet connection and you are cooking with gas. Buzzwords: Dedicated Internet, in the Cloud and SaaS (Software as a Service).
I wouldn’t need to point it out, for the most part, your business lives on the end of a cable that is connected to a network. The example of Harry and his business is a simple one, the truth is that many businesses have infrastructures that are a lot more complex, the corporate network supports everything from sending emails, making phone calls down to posting a payment to the till. When the network goes offline or becomes congested and slow, often all these services suffer. Call quality degrades, the “system” becomes slow. Customers become impatient. It plays on everyone's blood pressure. When there are branches involved it adds even more complexity and cost.
You can very effectively reduce the network costs in the last three options with a decent branch firewall / router by using multiple internet connections; inexpensive broadband connections that work in tandem to offer an enterprise type service. One can do a great many things, like automatic failover to another internet service should one go down, content filtering, controlling security, detecting intrusions, the list is endless. Some of it we can automate, some of it requires the console and man-hours to set up. But ultimately you know your network runs well when you have a tech guru IT guy that can type magic commands into an expensive firewall to set up things that fit your corporate policy and also your budget. He can quickly log into the Free State branch and switch them to LTE when the ADSL line packs up, or identify the facebook crawlers of the company that uses up all the bandwidth and blocks their access, and he can write reports of abuses to the management team. But for him along with the cost of the firewall and a few inexpensive broadband connections basically puts you back in the SLA backed MPLS market.
We have been using computer software to do things for the longest time, from entertaining us while playing Angry Birds all the way through to the algorithms that gives Harry the insights into his business that makes it successful. Anyone that has ever owned a calculator would agree that we’re outpaced rather quickly when it comes to calculations and iterative operations. Why have we never applied software to the problem of having well managed, affordable and reliable network access at the branch office? Software managed firewalls and routers that can bridge the gap between the need for inter-branch communication, cloud services, and colocation; and the need for a reliable yet affordable network. A solution that can adapt to your network in the blink of an eye and constantly adapt based on the current network conditions.
I will leave you with this final buzzword, one that is quickly evolving into an industry of its own.