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Why Networking Doesn't Get Respect Anymore

If you think businesses are souring on their IT processes, you should see networking. A decade ago, 18% of the CIOs who responded to my survey named networking as the focus point around which they built their IT plans, and 37% said it had equal weight to IT, meaning computing. This year, 12% said networking is their focus point, and 30% said they give equal weight to network and IT considerations.

That's a pretty astounding dip, and you have to wonder what caused it. The same surveys point to three primary factors, and even to a possible solution.

Politics and Perception
The first cause is political -- the rise of the CIO as the "Compute and Information Officer." Even in 2006 companies were combining networking and computing under a single executive, and since then computing has commanded the largest share of the budget and has been perceived to be the most directly coupled to business operations. While early CIOs had co-equal computing and networking managers reporting to them, by 2010 that co-equality had largely vanished. Today, my research shows that more than 90% of CIOs are drawn from computing career paths.

None of these compute-dominating drivers are turning around, either. My model says that by 2020 networking will dominate in only 11% of cases and secure equal weight in budget planning in only 28%. More and more companies say that networking is almost a staff function.

The second cause is the shift from an information distribution to an information creation model. Remember that computing initially focused on creating massive repositories of information, and the issue of making the most of that information was at first simply getting it into workers' hands. Planning focused on the squeaky wheel, of course, and so even computing technology was network-centric.

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The middleware responsible for the linkage between workers and data/applications was known by name by everyone in IT or networking and by nearly all the line managers (remember IBM's Customer Information Control System, or CICS?). In one survey I did 20 years ago, almost half the office workers knew of CICS. What, today, is the linking technology? Nobody knows, even the majority in IT jobs.

The Internet is the primary driver of this trend. Web front-ends to business applications have supplanted specific information control systems, and because what users see is perceived to come from the Internet, the actual delivery technology is hidden. Everyone knows that what you don't see is just plumbing.

This shift actually created the next cause of loss of respect for networking -- cost-driven planning has made networking look like a burden. Applications have all kinds of nice new features. Applications impact your daily life, control how you do your job. Networking? Well, it pushes your bits around. What's a "bit" to a worker, anyway? Especially when the only visible feature about networking is how much it costs, so a better network is necessarily a cheaper one, and the best one would be one that vanishes entirely. Think "network as a service."

Cost allocations made for IT services back to line departments exacerbate the notion that the network is a burden. Most companies don't liquidate network cost directly based on usage, and many don't even break it out from IT overhead charges. Users who don't know what they're consuming in the way of network services, or what they get for those services, are likely to quibble over what seems to be an unsupported charge. This issue could probably be addressed with some good promotion and glad-handing between networking management and line management, but the number of line users who say this happens is literally statistically insignificant.

Finding Value Within
In one of the great ironies of technology politics, the companies that are most likely to respect and value the network are the companies that actually let line organizations buy network services. Few companies adopt this approach across all their activities, but in the areas where line operations rather than IT does the contracting, users are aware of network features, of QoS and its impact on their workers, and on the value of connectivity and capacity.

Another piece of survey data from 2015 illustrates this. In departments where network service costs are simply allocated, only 8% of senior managers had any specific idea of what they were getting for their money. Among line departments that were contracting directly for the services (even from internal network organizations that "bid" for line department connectivity), senior managers were eight times as likely to know what their network dollars bought them.

The most interesting point about this cost-awareness difference is there's no significant difference in network service awareness when line departments buy directly from network providers versus buying services off their own internal WAN. That means that what hurts the network's credibility is not knowing for what and why you're paying, and even private networks for which cost is allocated by usage/quality are more respected.

Could it be that the root of the problem with networking, and with IT in general, is that it's a "staff" function for which costs are often just allocated to line departments as what one company calls "home office overhead?" An as-a-service mechanism for networking done in a pay-as-you-go form could make line organizations feel more empowered, just as "shadow IT" cloud computing does.

You can't do away with those allocations of core IT costs to departments -- you have to pay for some facilities and services collectively. You could, however, let individual organizations control network service costs beyond those basic costs. Maybe it's time to do that.

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