As BT launches its Intelligent Connectivity future networks proposition to the market, a number of my CIO customers across the housing sector have asked me how this is relevant for them. Why would more investment in the network underpin any digital transformation plans to achieve a smarter digital future?
On the one hand, procurement frameworks are typically driving networks to the lowest common denominator (i.e. cheaper price). This is a view of the network as a commodity – effectively (or I should say ineffectively) treating the network as a dumb pipe or just the string that joins your tin together.
But those of us in IT know this is missing the point because the network in its traditional form is becoming increasingly complex to manage securely and reliably. This is further compounded as many housing providers continue to merge their business, and hence their IT infrastructure, and continue to battle to keep pace with the rate of digital change and the non-stop and growing security threats from hackers.
Software defined networks (SDN) and network function virtualisation (NFV) capabilities are now starting to mature as service offerings, enabling much greater control, flexibility and visibility across not just the organisation’s network but across all IT service layers such as applications and security. This is what makes connectivity intelligent.
Housing providers have coped well in the face of continuing change yet still face many challenges as they digitally transform their services. Technology continues to offer lots of opportunity; for example, digital disruption, artificial intelligence and robotics have great potential to transform tenant services. But housing providers will need resilience, agility and new capabilities to grasp the technology’s potential. In the long-term, digital and innovation plans will need to include intelligent connectivity to achieve their potential.
Although housing providers continue to move services to the cloud and social media as well as adopt mobile solutions to achieve cost efficiencies and improve frontline services for tenants, there are significantly more opportunities that emerging digital technologies can offer to further transform services.
Cloud adoption, use of the internet for local network traffic breakout and flexible working from any location is eroding the traditional network security perimeter, turning the traditional security model on its head. Staff are increasingly mobile, connecting across different networks (wireless, cellular and fixed) to access the applications (cloud or enterprise) to deliver frontline services. They need reliable, secure and a high-quality level of performance from their IT while delivering those services. Visibility across the entire hybrid enterprise network, as well as connected device traffic, is now critical in defending the organisation’s systems and information from hackers. A more agile and controlled security implemented in software is a key benefit of SDN.
Housing providers need resilient, agile capabilities to achieve their digital potential and a smarter digital future. So why wouldn’t they want to manage their connectivity intelligently to achieve this?
Intelligent connectivity promises a software-defined network with better control, increased flexibility, more visibility and enhanced security. So that has to be a good thing, doesn’t it?
The volume of data flooding any organisation’s network will continue to grow. Cloud services, more complex AI-driven applications, rich content and the onslaught of big data will put even more demands on the network. This trend is only set to accelerate as software increasingly automates more of our work and personal lives. And we shouldn’t forget the promise of the internet of things to enable remote property management and tenant care services. Further digital disruption means there will be even more bandwidth-hungry technologies on the horizon, from augmented and virtual reality to autonomous vehicles, to cryptocurrencies and beyond.
So the network is not and can’t afford to be considered a dumb pipe. All this digital onslaught and disruption means that even greater visibility, control and security with the flexibility to manage the complex mesh of data and applications will be critical.
But when does the shift to intelligent connectivity make sense for a housing provider and how does the business case stack up?
In reality, housing providers are more likely to be followers than leading edge when it comes to the majority of their ICT infrastructure investments. While I don’t expect the move to intelligent or software-defined (SD) connectivity to be any different, what does need to be different is to include it as another technology enabler such as cloud, big data and mobile when it comes to evaluating and planning how digital can transform services.
I think it clearly makes sense to plan to be SD ready – make sure that artificial is not the only intelligence that you’re thinking of when it comes to optimising services but connectivity is considered too.
Housing providers should plan their intelligent connectivity roadmap as part of their digital journey. This will likely be linked to clear digital milestones or compelling events such as equipment end-of-life refreshes or managed network services contract terminations and re-lets. When retendering a network services contract, the CIO should stipulate for a clear SDN implementation plan, appropriate architecture and managed service wrap.
The plan should be aligned to the organisation’s own digital maturity and overall digital roadmap for cloud, big data and other digital enablers.
The architecture should ensure that the network topology is optimised in proportion to scale, complexity and affordability. In short, the business case needs to stack up. For example, it’s likely to make sense to have a software-defined network overlay across 10Gb fibre-connected data centre and HQ sites but this may be overkill for branch sites where a cheaper consumer-grade broadband service is more suitable, affordable and balanced against application performance and security risk expectations.
A key differentiator for software-defined networks is that the organisation will get enhanced insight, visibility and control of application performance, data-traffic management and security access to get the most out of the network. And because the software is implemented virtually, the network is now easier to manage (via a self-service portal) despite the increased broader digital complexity.
Often, many organisations are not confident of having the capabilities necessary to keep pace with the rate of technological change, obsolescence risks and the complexity of implementation. This makes it difficult to maximise the potential of digital transformation.
Intelligent connectivity can make the difference. The software-defined network will enable new applications and digital technologies to be deployed within shorter timeframes. Network changes can be achieved within weeks and even reduced to just days via drag-and-drop tools. This means the network is now a key enabler for agile software delivery, not a barrier. This should be a key part of the managed-service wrap requirements. So in essence, intelligent connectivity is very relevant to a housing provider’s digital transformation agenda. However, it’s about timing, it’s about appropriateness to the business architecture and needs, and it’s about the viability of the business case to achieve the benefits. But it’s not just a pipe dream.
Philip Brunkard is CIO for regional government and health at BT.