The commodification of networks is in full swing and everyone seems to think it is a good thing. You might hear this phrased as treating network devices like cattle, rather than pets. Or maybe you’ve heard that the network should move packets and do nothing more. Even, perhaps, that network bandwidth should be treated just like memory—you just add more when you need it.
Should the network be treated as a commodity?
Let’s try to dispel at least one myth about commodification—commodities have, or add, no value. To be more precise, commodities are fungible, or rather, things that can easily be replaced. One way to measure network commodity status is to ask two questions. First, is the item or system visible in the final product? Second, does the item or system add differentiated value? These two questions ask the same thing in two different ways. If the item only adds value that could be easily replaced by some other similar item or system, then it is a commodity.
Assuming the answer to this question is “yes” (although this is not necessarily a good answer—more on that later), it would seem you can say “networks do not add value, so they are merely a cost center.” There is, from this point, a mental ramp that moves from “does not add differentiable value” to “does not add value.” This is a mental leap to avoid as it can lead to unintended consequences of risk and poor experiences.
For example, consider the average Over-The-Road (OTR) truck used to carry goods of all kinds across continents and nations. Each individual OTR truck would seem to be a commodity, as it can be easily replaced by another similar truck. In some cases, in fact, an OTR truck could be replaced by a fleet of drones, an airplane or a ship. The service of carrying packages from one location to another might seem to be just as well served by any of these means. Unless, of course, you do not live close to a port, train track or airport. That last few miles of a distribution network tends to be a bit thornier of a problem, does it not?
The first point to note about whether something is a commodity or not ultimately depends on the situation. The corollary to this rule is that everything can be placed in a role where it is not a commodity. Whether an item is a commodity or not, then, is a matter of time, place and perspective.
Speaking of changing perspectives, have you ever paid close attention to the OTR trucks you see out on the highway? There is a vast difference between the ones driven by owner-operators and the ones owned and operated by large freight companies. Owner-operators keep their trucks in very good condition; they are washed, polished and damage is repaired quickly. They pay good money for chrome, lights and other fixtures that set their rigs apart.
This brings us to the second point—just because something is providing a commodity service, it does not mean the item itself should be treated as if it has no value. Pride of ownership can co-exist even when the service is a commodity.
What About the Network?
When applying these to the networking world, it might be that moving packets is a commodity in some situations. However, we should not assume moving packets is a commodity in every situation. Instead, we should examine the value chain and try to understand precisely where we can add value by moving packets in a different way and where we cannot. It is, in fact, dangerous to your business to assume carrying data traffic is always a commodity. How you set up your network to adapt to new transport needs, how you handle the precious cargo in transit and how you protect it from theft can have significant impact on the top and bottom lines of your business.
Further, even if you decide moving packets is a commodity in this situation, that does not mean we should abandon the network to decline or that we should fail to invest in the network. We can still take pride in ownership, both in form and function, in networks.
If you would like to explore the ideas of commodification and networks further, please join our upcoming webinar on this topic.