When you make a purchase decision, what are the long-term implications of the choices you make? What if you had to live with those choices for a long, long time?
HP just announced some new campus switches at Interop. During a briefing, I learned that the replacement period for campus switches ranges from seven to ten years.
Let’s put this in perspective: Ten years ago, the first iPhone didn’t exist. You may have had a BlackBerry or what we now call a feature phone. Can you imagine making a technology buying decision back in 2005, where you knew that the very same device would continue to be used in your organization for ten years? (Maybe it’s not you, since it may be your successor who has to deal with that device.) Granted, mobile phone lifecycles are short, but networking switches don’t exactly have a lifecycle akin to air conditioners either.
HP said it wants to create switches that have sufficient performance and flexibility to last a long time, without being prohibitively expensive.
What are the attributes that make a device long-lasting? It’s not too different from what you look for in a smartphone. Would it be performance, software, compatibility and adherence to standards? (I’ll take out the issue of fashion, since some people just don’t want to be seen with an old phone. As for campus switches, they are hidden in some wiring closet, so nobody knows.)
- Performance – Campus network access basically means Wi-Fi. Wi-Fi speeds are progressively getting faster, and people are consuming lots of data at the campus edge, with the mix to include video conferencing. As speeds such as AC become commonplace and the number of devices proliferate, demands on the infrastructure will increase accordingly.
- Software – This is the hard part. If the switches are controlled by an associated SDN controller or management platform, would those still be valid in ten years? Will it be compatible with network management tools that you have today, or those one will adopt in the years to come? One is not just buying a switch, but the surrounding software ecosystem.
- Compatibility – Standards have made this somewhat easier. Software provides management and analytics that are compatible with devices and software not only from the device vendor, but also from third parties. Upgradability is key.
- Standards – This is also tricky since there are de facto standards, vs. de jure standards. It’s tempting to go through an alphabet soup list of standards but we need know which ones are relevant to your use cases. We only know of standards available today, with some inkling of those on the roadmap and hope that they are still adopted and widely used in a decade.
Obviously, points 2, 3, and 4 are closely related but they have different characteristics.
Some companies take an innovative approach to reduce the risk of the upgrade cycle. Brocade’s Network Subscription is an acquisition and support program that provides a way to upgrade according to your schedule and helps manage capacity planning. It's not a lease, but a way to get equipment and support as a subscriber, so it's another way to get the latest infrastructure that can grow with you.
So as you buy your next campus device, look beyond the device to put it in the context of future demands and interoperability. You may be living with it for a long, long time. Or find a way to upgrade your devices in a predictable manner.