Modern network optimisation

07 July 2023

Network optimisation has never been as vital as it is today with the evolution of dispersed, hybrid working practises in the post-pandemic era. Amy Saunders asks network experts their thoughts on optimisation in 2023

Today’s businesses are increasingly operational 24/7 because of a hybrid/dispersed workforce that needs to be able to work on any application at any time day or night, anywhere in the world. Accordingly, network optimisation is vital to meet the growing demands of digital transformation; enable seamless remote work; ensure data security; enhance user experiences; achieve cost efficiencies; and prepare for future technological advancements.

Network optimisation has always been important, but perhaps now more than ever as IT departments are making more strategic decisions. “Their networks have become increasingly complex and costly whilst budgets are being squeezed even harder, so the need for cost optimisation is critical,” explains Martin Saunders, product and marketing director, Highlight.

Enterprises today are focused on operational agility to drive digital transformation, enable flexible working models, and adopt cloud resources from multiple cloud providers, but traditional wide-area-networks (WANs) were not architected for these use cases – from large scale cloud/multi-cloud usage - to a workforce that is largely remote with the need to be connected anywhere, anytime, says Darren Parkes, country practice leader, network & edge, Kyndryl. “Legacy networks also do not meet the security requirements required for these new digital paradigms.”

The evolution of technology continues at a rapid pace, with the emergence of 5G, edge computing, IoT, and AI-driven applications. Network optimisation is essential to prepare networks for these advancements, ensuring they can handle the increased data traffic, low-latency requirements, and complex network architectures.

How important is visibility?
Visibility is a critical aspect of network optimisation, providing real-time insights into the performance and behaviour of network components, applications, and traffic flows; effective security monitoring and threat detection; an understanding of how applications and services utilise network resources to enable performance optimisation and implement quality of service (QoS); the ability to optimise capacity planning and resource allocation, for the present and the future; and a way for the enterprise to monitor and audit network activities to meet compliance.

“Visibility is a critical aspect of network optimisation and without it, it is difficult to understand how networks behave and in turn, how best to optimise them,” opines Alan Hayward, sales & marketing manager at SEH Technology. “Seeing is believing that optimisation can help to spot issues such as bandwidth problems or security threats before they have a real impact on a network. Without visibility, optimisation becomes harder to successfully achieve, especially with data volumes increasing exponentially.”

Without visibility, organisations tend to over-build in terms of capacity to be safe, according to Saunders: “as an example, a secondary school recently moved to a policy where everyone is using Chromebooks. Their IT provider advised that they needed fast internet since everyone would be online and recommended a Gigabit Ethernet service. However, when the school used the Highlight Service Assurance Platform to understand usage in real time, they could see their peak usage was only ever 25Mb.”

However, while visibility is a key element, it is not the only one. Network optimisation encompasses multiple factors, and the importance of each can vary depending on the enterprise’s specific goals and requirements.

“Visibility is not necessarily the most important, but it is certainly critical,” adds Saunders. “To understand what you need from a network, you need to know what users are using today, how it is being used and for what purpose. Visibility is the starting point to creating a strategic plan.”

Bridging the communications gap
Many of today’s enterprises have a centrally managed network operations centre, and users often find it difficult to communicate their issues in an understandable way to those up the chain, resulting in miscommunication.

“It is important to remember that 95% of network users are in non-technical roles,” explains Saunders. “This includes those who are in management and technical support roles. If you can help them to understand what is happening on the network and make the right decisions, you can minimise the time spent by experienced and expensive engineers fixing problems.”

So how can vendors and integrators help non-technical users articulate their problems and needs?

“Vendors and integrators can help non-technical network users by assuming that they know little about how to articulate problems and by trying to gauge the level of understanding that the end-user has,” outlines Hayward. “Cutting out the jargon helps users to be on the same page and removes the technical terminology which can be daunting for non-technical roles. It’s all about putting non-technical users at ease without overwhelming them with technical jargon and complex terminology.”

Simplifying technical explanations is essential to enable effective communications between technical and non-technical users on networking challenges. Offering user-friendly tools and interfaces like visual dashboards or step-by-step troubleshooting guides is another route to empowering network users to self-diagnose and report network issues more effectively.

One size fits all?
When it comes to network optimisation, every enterprise has unique requirements for infrastructure, applications, and business goals: there is no ‘one size fits all.’

“One solution doesn’t fit all, and IT managers need to choose a solution that works for them and their needs,” says Hayward. “Once a solution has been chosen it then needs to be monitored to see how it works in practice. While a solution may look good on paper, in practice it might not work exactly as intended. Without monitoring, network optimisation won’t achieve all the possible benefits.”

The optimal network optimisation solution will vary significantly depending on factors such as the enterprise size, industry, network architecture, traffic patterns, and performance objectives. Moreover, different organisations may prioritise different aspects of network optimisation based on their specific needs. A large enterprise with geographically dispersed offices may require solutions that focus on WAN optimisation and traffic management, while a small startup heavily reliant on cloud services may prioritise solutions that optimise cloud connectivity and application performance.

It is essential for enterprises to thoroughly assess their requirements, conduct proper analysis and testing, and consult with network experts or vendors to determine the most suitable network optimisation solution for their specific needs. Customising the solution to align with goals, network infrastructure, and performance requirements is crucial for achieving optimal results.

“It is important not to be drawn into what is being hyped. We have encountered lots of examples of SD-WAN regret, where companies have jumped on a technology before really understanding how it needs to be done,” says Saunders. “Properly understand what you need, where you are going and ensure that optimisation is part of the strategy first before making long standing decisions about vendors and technologies.”

Choosing the right solution
IT managers must consider several important factors to ensure they choose the right network optimisation solution for their enterprise’s specific needs, such as scalability and flexibility; security capabilities; ease of deployment and management; performance improvement; cost effectiveness; analytics and reporting; and vendor support and reputation.

“Some of the most important considerations are current remote site performance, requirements for latency sensitive applications and efficient and secure network access,” says Jeremy Reese, WAN networking product line leader, Kyndryl. “IT modernisations can fail if inventory records of legacy infrastructure isn’t very good. Doing the necessary research to understand what’s needed often requires a lot of additional resources — and many companies lack resources to allocate to the effort.”

For Hayward, it’s about choosing one that fits the problem, taking into account the resources available to an IT manager, as well as one that’s simple to use: “SaaS spending is a key area of concern for IT managers and network optimisation solutions need to provide value and be capable of factoring in network requirements rather than just becoming another SaaS solution sitting on the shelf, especially important in a rapidly developing emerging technology-filled world.”

When choosing an optimisation solution, IT managers should also beware of avoiding pitfalls like compatibility, which can lead to integration challenges and disruptions.

From ignoring the critical aspects of an optimisation solution outlined above, to failing to conduct a thorough proof-of-concept (PoC) or trial period to evaluate its performance in a real-world environment and forgetting about long-term needs – resulting in frequent replacements or additional investments – IT managers must keep their eyes on the ball.

“With so many pitfalls, the best option is to try before you buy,” asserts Saunders. “This means you don’t get stuck in a particular technical or vendor direction. Service providers often have wide access to different vendors, as a result they are more vendor-agnostic and can provide user references for the different technologies.”

Moreover, effective network optimisation is not a ‘one-and-done’: “it is a continual ongoing process where you should always be moving in the right direction based on data,” explains Saunders. “This is where having one clear view of how all network elements are performing together is invaluable.”.