6 min read

Networking and the Benefits of Software Overlay Solutions

January 21, 2019

Five years ago, you would have gone into a networking conversation at a school or an enterprise and they would have effectively said ‘my switch is this and it's configured in this way and I need this bandwidth and number of switches to do X, Y, and Z’. The scenario was, and still is for a chunk of customers, hardware-driven and it would be managed almost exclusively by the IT team. The solution would have been sold based on ‘speeds and feeds’ as well as a quantity of hardware, with minimal consideration for insight, analytics, ROI etc.


Of course, certain businesses did take these other factors into consideration in their solution designs and discussions, but the solutions were disaggregated. They didn’t often speak to each other.

Today in this increasingly connected world, everything is becoming more automated and streamlined. For example, we're taking away static physical endpoints and replacing them with virtual desktop infrastructures (VDIs). Every aspect of IT is going this way, including solution automation and security for networking. This is what we mean by unified software solutions, bringing the control, visibility and the functionality of the IT solution into a centralised platform that can be leveraged not just by siloed IT departments but also the wider business to deliver a plethora of benefits.

Software in action: The National Portrait Gallery

Andrew Pope, Infrastructure Specialist at the National Portrait Gallery, commented, ‘We now have seamless coverage across the whole gallery and offices. The solution was easy to deploy and is easy to maintain and monitor from any third-party location. People are really happy — it simply works.’

The National Portrait Gallery is one example of how integrated software solutions can assist with business transformation. It is now able to address business concerns that simply wouldn’t have been possible previously with siloed and static IT infrastructure. Visitor data can be gathered and patterns measured using analytics within centralised management platforms. As a result, the shop was relocated, and revenue has subsequently increased significantly, with instant ROI for the whole solution – this success was delivered in partnership with the WiFiSPARK platform.

Unsurprisingly, this change is also impacting the way IT technology providers across the UK are developing and marketing their products.

Read more about how the National Portrait Gallery improved customer experience and increased retail revenue.

From hardware provider to software partner

What we're seeing now, whether it's Dell EMC, Cisco, Extreme Networks, or HP, is a move from all vendors towards defining themselves as software businesses.

Market demands for integrated and centralised software that provides a ‘single pane of glass’ is driving this change, leading each vendor to streamline their offerings under a single umbrella solution (Cisco pun not intended) or software overlay that their customers can use to manage their servers, switches, and security solutions via that ‘single pane of glass’.

This translates well when customers wish to spin up a device or need a service, rather than having to get a network engineer to bring up the networking configuration and the server engineer to set up the servers and the security engineer for the security piece - it's all automated and streamlined, with centralised reporting and management. In terms of the data centre, that's where the real value is as whilst such solutions can be a substantial investment, the ROI is in the time-saving of resource and the ability to spin up the services quickly.

Another instance of this centralised software driven focus can be found with the Extreme XMC software solution that enables customers to centrally manage, secure and analyse the end-to-end networking estate. This is achieved with three modules, Management, Control and Analytics and is a great solution that encompasses both the campus and data centre.

You may be asking yourself “do any of the vendors have a completely unified software solution that encompasses all elements of IT and provides me with everything I’ll ever need?” Presently…not that I’m aware. However, that’s not necessarily a bad thing as with the use of Application Programming Interfaces (APIs) vendors are bringing together best of breed technologies into centralised platforms.

For example, SonicWall or Palo Alto do firewalls (amongst other solutions) very well but their focus isn’t, let’s say, switching. Well, using APIs means that Dell EMC switching can be integrated with these other best of breed technologies without needing to come from the same vendor – it’s a win-win, and ensures you get the best features and functionality across the IT solution.

Looking beyond the data centre to the campus environment

Dell Technologies have a fantastic solution portfolio available when customers are looking to implement centralised software driven IT infrastructure in the data centre. This could be in the form of VMWare’s NSX solution or Dell Technologies’ Big Switch software defined networking solution.

As a result of all the big vendors developing their own variations, unified data centres and the software solutions currently powering them have become an established offering in the IT marketplace. This is not so true in the campus environment, where the use of edge devices tells a different, more traditional networking story.

The end-user potential for unified solutions across the education sector is nothing short of phenomenal.

Working with Dell EMC, for example, schools could better understand what kinds of websites and content their pupils are accessing as part of the Prevent strategy, while access to analytics data could grant increased visibility over their use of devices.

Across higher education, universities could use IT to solve business challenges such as the ability to track whether a student with a grant has come to campus and attended their seminars or lectures. If the student doesn’t, they could find themselves charged, as they're not making full use of the grant.

 The relatively slow adoption of new and emerging technology compared to other sectors means the education sector has been slower on the uptake of integrated software solutions than many enterprise and retail businesses. It might take the sector another decade yet to catch up. Despite this, the opportunity does exist now for forward-thinking campuses willing to embrace new technology to choose a unified software solution and streamline their IT.

Take a closer look at software-defined networking.

Dell EMC and Cumulus Networks Solution

From automation to network virtualisation, Dell EMC and Cumulus Networks has a networking solution or use case for your campus needs, offering solutions for a wide range of campus networking challenges.

The Cumulus Networks solution is able to offer campuses all the benefits of the data centre manageability via a single platform and extend that out to the campus so all the end switches are managed the same way that the servers are managed, the same way that the top and back solutions are managed.

Looking to a software-driven future

There will be a place for the ‘traditional’ IT solution design for many years to come. And you still need someone to administer that system, and even when moving to full software driven networking, someone to understand the fundamentals of networking and security in order to plan how you're going to deploy your software solution and manage it in future. But today more than ever, senior management as well as other departments such as marketing want to get insights from the IT solutions. They want to be able to report on what people are doing and potentially monetise if possible.

They need, from a compliance point of view, to shine a spotlight on networking: the analytics on who's doing what, where, when, and why.

To return for a moment to the National Portrait Gallery, Andrew tells us: ‘We are collecting data on footfall and visitor origin. This is helpful to use when considering site layout. As a result of the data, our shop has been relocated and revenue from this has increased. We are looking at how we can use this data further to innovate in the gallery.’

Because the solutions are now available to pull that information out of the system, the lines between these solutions — wireless, networking, and security — are much more blurred. They've all started to become integrated. And what we're seeing in the data centre now and over the last couple of years, bringing all this together and automating it, will become more mainstream over the next decade, whereby what is happening in the data centre will be happening everywhere.

Right now, we have campus solutions and data centre solutions. Tomorrow, there will be less differentiation. You won't go 'I have a campus solution or a data centre solution’. You will just have a network solution or an infrastructure solution that covers both environments.

Transform your campus network with an innovative software solution that unifies all your IT requirements in one place. To find out more, call us on 0203 176 4900 or get in touch.

Network health check

Topics: Security

Written by Paul Sweeney