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Building resilience for remote infrastructure management

Use a comprehensive strategy to build a high availability network, says B Ashok

A new market opportunity has emerged as Indian IT vendors move up the value chain beyond software services. Remote Infrastructure Manage-ment Services (RIMS) are expected to drive the next wave of growth in the outsourcing market.

Gartner estimates that IT management presents a market opportunity of $150 billion in 2006. Of this, around $250 million is expected to be spent annually on RIMS delivered from India.

In a Morgan Stanley study, over 25 percent of CIOs surveyed believed IMS was the IT service most likely to be sent offshore. Forrester has identified several market trends that may influence the IMS market. These include:

  • IT budgets in most countries will grow just 1–2 percent.
  • Global IT services giants are expanding their offshore operations in low-cost nations.
  • Indian providers have achieved a certain level of process maturity, reducing the risk of outsourcing an IT network to remote locations.

Key Differentiator

As Indian IT firms tap the IMS opportunity, networking infrastructure has emerged as a key differentiator. Prospective clients usually evaluate delivery capabilities based on the vendor’s Network Operating Centre (NOC) setup. Since infrastructure management is a critical issue and even minutes of downtime can cripple a client’s business, the network has emerged as a crucial element of an IT vendor’s business strategy. The entire network must therefore be resilient.

Business resilience refers to the operational and technological readiness that allows IT service providers to operate their networks efficiently. Business resilient networks help businesses respond quickly to opportunities and react appropriately to unplanned events.

Business resilience is holistic. Indian IT firms realise they can no longer just look at point products. The trend is to work with networking vendors that offer:

  • Secure and scalable infrastructure
  • World-class service and support, and
  • Domain experts who work closely with internal teams to build comprehensive business resilience strategies.

This article considers six essential components of a business resilience strategy, and how they should be addressed.

Network Resilience

A high-availability network is the foundation of network resilience. This requires substantial investment in both capital and operational expenditures, but pays off with significantly higher uptime, greater customer satisfaction, increased revenues and reduced exposure to regulatory penalties. A comprehensive strategy for high-availability networking includes:

  • a re-inforced network infrastructure
  • Real-world network design
  • Realigned network operations
  • Real-time network management
  • Relentless network support.

Some firms may deploy lowest-cost, point-product solutions from several vendors without realising how this approach diminishes their ability to deploy future products and services, and without counting the cost of network downtime. Robbing the organisation of the benefits of system-wide network intelligence can increase the complexity and expense of network operations.

Deploying a resilient network provides the flexibility to adapt an infrastructure to future services and applications with minimal disruption. A resilient network has end-to-end intelligence that segments (through virtual LANs, virtual SANs, or WANs), prioritises (through quality of service), and protects (through encryption) traffic without requiring major upgrades, only configuration of existing features. To facilitate scalability and adaptability, enterprises also need networking vendors that offer worldwide, world-class service and support. This helps IT firms track and solve problems quickly with access to online training, documentation and software upgrades, a 24-hour helpdesk and onsite assistance.

Applications Resilience

A resilient network increases applications resilience. Network intelligence complements server and storage technologies to maintain application availability. Offloading processor-intensive tasks such as encryption, compression, and load balancing into the network increases application resilience and scalability by freeing server and storage processors to perform their core duties.

The trend towards data centre consolidation redefines how companies attain optimal applications resilience. It begins with redundant network components and server clusters. Server virtualisation technologies protect applications, preventing faults that occur in one application from affecting others. Intelligent storage networking improves both availability and utilisation of storage resources. Acquisition-prone companies can end up with storage resources from several vendors. By applying networking concepts, virtualisation technologies make it easier to match application service-level requirements with the appropriate class of storage.

Regulatory compliance often requires enterprises to build geographically-dispersed, redundant data centres. SAN extension technologies such as Fibre Channel over IP (FCIP) and optical networks support synchronous and asynchronous transaction and data mirroring. If a catastrophe takes all or part of a data centre offline, mirrored resources in a backup or hot-standby data centre can take over business-critical activities without session loss.

Communications Resilience

Enterprises are gradually moving towards IP communications. If regulation permits, Indian IT vendors could move beyond IP PBX to offer cost-effective Voice over IP applications. Converged networks enhance communications flexibility. The telephone service is the function most essential to conducting business, therefore the network that supports the telephone service must be highly available. Branch-office routers must include features that maintain local telephone service and PSTN access should the WAN link to the central management service fail. IP call centres should allow remote agent access from home when weather conditions make commuting difficult or dangerous.

Workforce Resilience

Workforce resilience strives for anytime employee accessibility to applications and services from any location. In the office, conference rooms with wireless LAN access eliminate the battle for ports.

Mobile workers can carry a preconfigured broadband router and IP phone kit that allow them to connect to the corporate network from anywhere and enjoy the same services they would access if they were directly connected at office. Teleworkers use a similar means to set up home offices with secure, always-on VPN access to the corporate network. Such flexibility increases employment options, worker satisfaction and productivity.

Multilayer Security

The most available and intelligent network is not resilient without adequate protection. An integrated approach to resilience makes it easier to apply and enforce consistent security policies throughout the enterprise.

Attacks such as distributed denial-of-service (DDoS), information theft, and worms and viruses, can cripple an organisation’s ability to do business. For example, after surfing the Internet, an employee can innocently introduce a worm or virus to the corporate network through a remote-access connection. Endpoint security coupled with network-based policy enforcement can stop the infection before it spreads by pre-screening user PCs before allowing them to log into the network. This cooperation between computing and network elements creates a synergy that provides stronger protection than either system can accomplish independently. This principle forms the basis for multilayer, modular security blueprints.

While worm and virus attacks make news headlines, a simple misconfiguration of a router, switch or firewall can introduce an exploitable vulnerability. Configuration templates can help operators avoid common mistakes, thus increasing network availability and implementing security policies.

Industry-wide initiatives like Network Admission Control strive to enforce security policy compliance on all devices seeking to access network-computing resources. The aim is to eventually protect every packet flow on a network.

Network Operations

Investing in and using integrated management systems eliminates configuration errors and speeds up routine processes through automation. Networking vendors offer extensive lifecycle-based services to help enterprises with assessment, design, implementation and operations for high-availability networking, security and network operations. Network operations are critical to a successful business resilience strategy. As with any journey, enterprises can plan a cost-managed path towards resilience goals when they know how resilient their IT systems are today.

Nearly all of India’s tier-I IT companies have deployed state-of-the-art networks that address all the key components of business resilience. If Indian IT services companies are to take advantage of their networks to win a fair share of the $150 billion IMS market, they would do well to incorporate elements of an effective business resilience strategy.

The author is Senior Vice-president, ITS, Cisco Systems, India & SAARC

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