IT Network Infrastructure Drill-Down: Efficiency

By Elizabeth Millard  |  Posted 2008-11-12

As a corporate buzzword, "efficiency" is a particular favorite, especially in IT, where everyone from CIOs to network analysts are tweaking and purchasing with the aim of achieving ever greater efficiency. But what does that word even mean when applied to networking?

Efficiency gains might refer to a reduction in power and cooling, or a strategy change, such as switching to virtualization or implementing more monitoring tools. On the whole, however, some companies that yearn for efficient networks may not be creating enough policies and benchmarks to recognize efficiency advances.

"It can be a very ambiguous term," says Peter Doggart, vice president at Crossbeam Systems, which provides a platform that facilitates the consolidation, virtualization, and simplification of security services.

Problems in reaching more efficiency often crop up because there is too much complexity and duplication in network infrastructures, he believes. Many enterprises have too many processes, too much equipment, and communication disconnects among security, networking, and system operations professionals.

"When there's so much complexity, you end up always firefighting, because you fundamentally don't know what's going on in the network," Doggart notes. "Companies end up buying more equipment, thinking that will solve the operational efficiencies, and then they have to hire more people to manage it. It's a horrible cycle."

Doggart believes that CIOs in particular struggle with understanding the current level of efficiency in their network infrastructure, and that creates challenges as new equipment gets put in, or a strategy like consolidation is launched. Without knowing how efficient a network already is, how can a CIO gauge whether any advances are being made after modifications are made to the network setup?

"That's the killer question: how do you know when your network is being inefficient?" notes Doggart. "There needs to be more investment in tools and resources that can track areas like power consumption."

Getting a read on power and cooling is vital for overall efficiency efforts, notes Ken Brill, executive director of the Uptime Institute. Consolidation and virtualization can be helpful, but CIOs also need to know how much they're spending, and how much costs are rising. Given the increase in operating expenses, it could turn out that consolidation doesn't increase efficiency as much as an IT department may think.

"Even just a few years ago, facility costs were low, maybe one to two percent of an operating budget," says Brill. "But now, they're up to about five percent, and it's very possible that the number will go much higher."

He predicts that operating expenses could climb as high as 30 percent within the next decade, which could thwart any cost savings achieved through better efficiency.

Getting Streamlined

The first step toward more efficiency is understanding every nuance of the network, Doggart says. Monitoring tools should be implemented that track network behavior, from connection speed to temperature changes in the data center.

"There's a whole slew of tools, and there are some sophisticated dashboards that let CIOs understand quickly what's happening, and how issues like traffic are affecting the network," he notes.

With a baseline established in order to track improvements, a company can begin to implement changes that might increase efficiency.

Optimization tools can help boost efficiency, especially for wide area networks, bringing gains to overall speed and application performance. With an optimized network, it's easier to do consolidation tactics such as centralizing storage, as well as improving services like disaster recovery.

Forrester Research analyst Robert Whiteley noted to Government Computer News that WAN optimization can decrease link utilization—the connections between router, servers, appliances, and other network resources-- “from 80 percent to 40 percent, though the combination of caching and compression.” This can lead to reduced bandwidth costs, better server efficiency, and improved backup capability.

In addition to tools, enterprises should look at the communication channels within the IT department, particularly as they relate to the CIO.

Creating silos within a group, for example, the security guru only thinks about security, not how the types of applications and appliances installed for security are affecting the network— can increase the complexity of an organization, and cause friction when an infrastructure is changed.

Creating greater efficiency will help the bottom line of a budget, but there are also larger benefits, Doggart adds. Improved network performance will allow for expansion and risk minimization, so that enterprises can scale appropriately without doing even more firefighting.