The efficiency of branch office IT

Just last week, “Application Monitor” argued for SDN (software-defined networking) as a trend to watch. One aspect of this trend is that “Network virtualization helps make branch offices more efficient“, of course.

Or perhaps not. Monique Lucey, of HP Marketing, wrote the latter, and, for me, it illustrates pitfalls in information technology (IT) as much as opportunities. It’s instructive to trace through this particular article as practice in responsible engineering judgment.

Recognize, first, the context of “Network virtualization …” Crudely, the purpose of the ChannelHP Enterprise Business Blog is closer to promotion of HP sales, than to IT efficiency. That’s not a criticism, just recognition of reality. The treatment of the subject emphasizes “conversion” of readers to prospective customers more than it does careful strategic or tactical calculations. The third paragraph, for example, is this:

The number of branch offices is growing. IDC survey research, for example, shows that in 2009, 39 per cent of businesses with more than 10,000 employees increased their number of branch office sites.

The second sentence suggests the opposite of the first, if re-phrased as, “… 61% of a special segment of all businesses either held their branch-office count steady, or cut the number of their branches.”

Whether branch-office count is growing or not doesn’t particularly matter, of course, to working IT managers, except as part of an inspirational package. Much of the other motivational material–“managing branch offices has become more complex”, “branch offices are beginning to adopt similar practices as data centers …”, and so on–is equally ambiguous, unproven, or simply false. The real point for an engineer is that branch offices are out there, and we need to support them efficiently.

What specific action does Lucey recommend? “… [R]educing the number of physical hardware devices deployed and managed at each location. … The benefits are increased efficiency and manageability with an integrated services approach.”

I don’t buy it.

I’ll be more precise: while we constantly are on the lookout in our own business for ways to consolidate and reduce box count, “bundling as many functions and services as possible into the smallest number of hardware platforms” sounds to me more like a slogan addressed to business managers than a real engineering prescription. This isn’t about “efficiency” in a technical sense, for the business managers are unlikely to have any measure of the efficiency of existing solutions; this is about cheerleading for the HP-branded FlexBranch line.

While there’s plenty to like in the FlexBranch design, I have no doubt that part of the marketing is a late add-on to capture a little of the fashionability of words like “virtualization”. Branch office appliances were available and did valuable service at least two decades ago, long before “network virtualization” or UC (unified communications) were practical.

SDN has great potential, just as do such other hot topics as cloud, big data,  HTML5, or NoSQL. None of them are magic, though; spending money on “network virtualization” just because it’s this season’s hit will not lead to “efficiency and manageability”. “Application Monitor” will return in December to work through details of what makes for successful SDN, datacenter operation, branch management, and other topics related to application delivery.