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Every telecom or network planner has fought the battle of revolution versus evolution. Often the best long-term technology choices don't quite mesh with current infrastructure and practices, and that frequently means making short-term choices that eventually fall flat. With profit per bit falling and competition increasing, you can't make short-term choices anymore. But how do you sell revolutionary network strategy to a management team more tuned to evolution?
The truth is even technology revolutions are evolutionary in their implementation. Few technology options and fewer vendors would require a network strategy that completely overhauls network infrastructure. Revolutionary technology always presents an on-ramp where pace can be controlled to manage risk and reflect the need to limit Capex write-downs of current equipment.
The trick is to use a well-paced technology on-ramp for your own projects, and that involves adopting a three-pronged network strategy.
Step 1: The virtual device model
Networks are traditionally built by connecting physical devices like routers and switches. Revolutionary network technologies substitute software-defined elements for these physical devices. But in the future, the network might not contain any traditional switches and routers at all. They will all contain virtual devices that mirror the capabilities of those old boxes, however. Controlling how a virtual box appears lets you control what your service and network looks like.
Pick your virtual device boundaries carefully. Your virtual devices might have missions as specific as the physical devices they replace, or a single virtual device might define entire services or infrastructure. The virtual functions of network functions virtualization (NFV) are virtual devices themselves. With software-defined networking, your white box switch collection looks like a single virtual router. Either way, virtual devices are managed like real devices, and that simplifies things.
You have to be sure your new technology can look like a virtual device in your network for this to work. For NFV, that's easy, because virtual functions are directly related to individual physical device functions. For SDN, the technology would normally replace a group of physical devices, so you'll want to look for places to adopt SDN sites where you can either displace an area of switches or routers, or move current devices elsewhere.
Step 2: Look at total cost of ownership, not Capex costs
The problem with a Capex focus is it can encourage you to take on a big expense upfront. By forcing a large expense early on, the project's apparent risk level and potential impact on installed equipment explode. That makes management nervous. If you add Opex to the picture, you have an opportunity to generate Opex cost and agility benefits without all that negative baggage.
Beyond Capex, total cost of ownership (TCO) is Opex-driven, and the automation of some operations is inevitable in all revolutionary network technologies. Some revolutionary projects like the European Telecommunications Standards Institute's zero-touch automation work target Opex specifically. Because you'll have to do some operations automation, why not automate beyond the new technologies and affect even current devices and services? As the virtual-device-model strategy makes your new technology elements look like devices, you can apply some of the same automation practices to the physical devices themselves.
Yet, TCO is more than Capex and Opex. You need to understand how a new technology project will affect equipment that's still on the books, which means its full value hasn't been written down yet. The company's CFO should have the needed information on residual depreciation or the expected useful life of equipment, but that will have to be filtered to show only the devices that are actually affected by the transformation project being considered. Don't forget that when you look for benefits in each phase of your project, you'll need to cover any write-down costs, as well.
Step 3:Manage incremental ROI to avoid benefit exhaustion
How many times have technology planners been told to go after the thing that's easiest to sell, with the smallest amount of buyer resistance? One of the most common errors when changing technologies is to focus too heavily on the early stage benefits, which reduces the value of later phases of the project.
Two points are critical in the adoption of any futuristic technology. The first is the initial step that gets management buy-in. The second step actually commits to the new technology, which is the critical old-to-new technology transition. The goal is to get enough benefits for both, so you need to look at your project's individual steps overall and ration out your benefits to ensure every step can be justified.
Rationing the benefits of a technology project is one approach. Don't introduce too many benefits in the early phases. Many planners front-load the obvious benefits deliberately to get a project going. But CFOs really want a credible ROI that's within the company's financial targets. If a disproportionate amount of the overall benefits are delivered in the early phases of a project, management may not see the ROI as high enough in subsequent phases.
It's best to manage more specific targets for each phase of the project. Pick services, areas of the network or segments of the network that will be affected, rather than the whole network at once.
Most technology revolutions end up being phased in, rather than completed all at once. By managing the scope of the impact of each phase, you have some control over exposure to costs that commit you to spending money. Do the math for each phase and adjust the targets to secure a steady ROI that's within the CFO's project approval guidelines every step of the way.
Only a small number of transformation projects involve a total forklift replacement of current infrastructure or a total change in operations practices, but many are presented as forklift changes. By controlling the scope of the impact, using TCO properly and, above all, thinking in virtual-device terms, you can make your network strategy look like smart evolution, not risky revolution, and increase your chances of getting management buy-in from start to finish.