22 June 2018

Intelligent Connectivity – not a public sector pipe dream

As BT launches its Intelligent Connectivity future networks proposition to the market, a number of my CIO customers across local government have asked me how this is relevant for them. Why would more investment in the network be needed to underpin any digital transformation plans to achieve a smarter digital future?

There’s more to networks

Procurement frameworks are typically driving networks to the lowest common denominator (cheaper price). This is a view of the network as a commodity – effectively (or I should say ineffectively) treating the network as a dumb pipe or the string that joins your tin together.

But those of us in IT know this is missing the point as the network in its traditional form is becoming increasingly complex to manage securely and reliably. This is further compounded as cash-strapped councils struggle to keep pace with the rate of digital change and the non-stop and increasingly sophisticated security vulnerability threats from hackers.

Software-defined networks (SDN) and network function virtualisation (NFV) capabilities are now starting to mature as a service offering, enabling much greater control, flexibility and visibility across, not just the organisation’s network, but all IT service layers such as applications and importantly security. This is what makes connectivity intelligent.

Digital transformation has begun, but more can be achieved

As the recent PWC report ‘Local state we’re in 2018’ highlights, councils have coped well in the face of continuing uncertainty yet still fear failure looking ahead. Digital technology still offers an opportunity to transform local public services. Digital disruption, artificial intelligence and robotics offer new possibilities. But councils will need resilience, agility and new capabilities to grasp these opportunities. Long-term, digital and innovation plans need to include intelligent connectivity to realise this potential.

Although councils are already moving services to the cloud and social media, as well as adopting mobile solutions, to achieve cost efficiencies and improve frontline services, there are many more opportunities for emerging digital technologies to further transform services.

Security is critical in a mobile and cloud-based world

Cloud adoption, use of the internet for local network traffic breakout, and flexible working from any location, are eroding the traditional network security perimeter, turning the traditional security model on its head. Staff are increasingly mobile; connecting across different networks (wireless, cellular and fixed) to access the applications (cloud or enterprise) to deliver frontline services. They need reliability, security, and high quality performance from their IT, wherever they are. Visibility across the entire hybrid enterprise network, as well as connected device traffic, is now critical in defending the council’s systems and information from hackers. A key benefit of SDN is the ability to implement a more agile and controlled security service through software alone.

Growth in data volume and complexity will put more pressure on networks

The volume of data flooding an organisation’s network continues to grow – for councils too. Cloud services, and more complex AI driven applications, rich content, and the onslaught of big data will put even more demands on the network. This trend will accelerate as software increasingly automates more of our work and personal lives. And we should not forget the promise of the Internet of Things to enable the Smart Places agenda. Further digital disruption means there will be even more bandwidth-hungry technologies on the horizon – from augmented and virtual reality to autonomous vehicles, to Blockchain and beyond. So the network is not, and can’t afford to be considered, a dumb pipe. All this digital onslaught and disruption means greater visibility, control and security with the flexibility to manage the complex mesh of data and applications will be critical.

To face up to all these challenges, councils will need to manage their connectivity intelligently. Intelligent connectivity promises the control, flexibility, visibility and enhanced security needed. So that has to be a good thing, doesn’t it?

But when does the shift to intelligent connectivity make sense for a cash-strapped public sector organisation and when does the business case stack up?

Build intelligent connectivity into your digital roadmap

In reality public sector organisations are more likely to be followers than leading edge when it comes to the majority of its ICT infrastructure investments. I don’t expect the move to intelligent or software- defined (SD) connectivity to be any different. But what does need to be different is to include it as another technology enabler like cloud, like big data, like mobile, when it comes to evaluating and planning for how digital can transform services.

I think it clearly makes sense to plan to be SD ready – make sure that artificial is not the only intelligence that you’re thinking of when it comes to optimising services, but that connectivity is considered too.

Councils should plan their intelligent connectivity roadmap as part of their digital journey – linking it to clear digital milestones or compelling events such as equipment end of life refresh, or managed network services contract termination and re-let. When re-tendering a network services contract, the council CIO should stipulate the need for a clear SDN implementation plan, appropriate architecture and managed service wrap.

The plan should be aligned to the council’s own digital maturity and overall digital roadmap for cloud, big data and other digital enablers.

The architecture should ensure that the network topology is optimised in proportion to scale, complexity and affordability. The business case needs to stack up. For example, a software-defined network overlay across 10GB fibre connections is likely to make sense for data centres and HQ sites but may be overkill for smaller sites. For these sites, cheaper consumer-grade broadband may be more appropriate and affordable when balanced against application performance & security risk expectations.

Intelligent connectivity means quicker deployment & easier management

The PWC report also flags that councils are not confident that they have the capabilities necessary to keep pace with the rate of technological change, obsolescence risks and the complexity of implementation. This makes it challenging to maximise the potential of digital transformation.

Intelligent connectivity can make the difference. With software-defined networks, the organisation gets enhanced insight visibility & control of application performance, data traffic management, and security access & control to get the most out of the network. With functionality enabled as software implemented virtually, the network is now easier to manage (via a self-service portal) despite the increased broader digital complexity.

A software-defined network will enable new applications and digital technologies to be implemented more quickly. Network changes can be achieved within weeks, or even days via drag-and-drop tools. The network becomes a key enabler for agile software delivery, rather than a barrier. This should be a key part of the managed service wrap requirements.

So in essence, intelligent connectivity is very relevant to a council’s digital transformation agenda. However, it is about timing; it is about appropriateness to the business architecture and needs; and it is about the viability of the business case to achieve the benefits. But it is not just a pipe dream.

If you want to find out more about BT’s vision for software-defined networks and how we can help you achieve a smarter digital future, visit Intelligent Connectivity.

Phil Brunkard is CIO - Regional Government & Health at BT Business and Public Sector

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