The IT Professional's Guide To Corporate Networks
Corporate networks have evolved over the years, and IT professionals need to keep up, or risk falling behind.
The corporation has been around for a while. But how people communicate across corporate networks is changing. New technologies – cloud, virtualization, big data – and new ways of working create unforeseen challenges for the IT professionals supporting the corporation. It’s a full-time job just to keep up with new developments.
What Is a Corporate Network?
To understand what a corporate network is, perhaps first we should take a look at corporations themselves. According to Investopedia, “A corporation is a legal entity that is separate and distinct from its owners.” The word corporation comes from the Latin word corporare, which means “to combine in one body.” A corporation may employ a lot of people, but the whole idea of its formation is that everyone should be working together as one unit.
That should be the aim of the corporate network. People may be occupied in different buildings, departments, and organizational structures around the world. But a corporate network needs to bring them all together, help them communicate and share resources, and protect and advance the interests of the corporate entity.
A synonym for the corporate network is the term enterprise network, which is defined as an enterprise's communications backbone that helps connect computers and related devices across departments and workgroup networks, facilitating insight and data accessibility. A corporate network is about keeping both machines and people connected.
The Cisco Model: Access, Distribution and Core
So much about IT infrastructure has changed over the years. But we can learn a lot by studying models that have been around for a long time. In this case, Cisco’s three-layer hierarchical design model can provide tremendous insights into managing a corporate network. “The three-layer model is a conceptual framework,” says Cisco. “It is an abstract picture of a network similar to the concept of the Open System Interconnection (OSI) reference model.”
Any IT professional who has studied for the challenging Cisco Certified Network Associate (CCNA) certification will know about the company’s three-tiered network management system. Long before virtualization, cloud computing and other technologies began changing the way people think about IT infrastructure, techs familiar with the Cisco approach have benefited from its logical organization. (For more information about new ways of conceptualizing networks, see Network Virtualization: A New Framework.)
End devices, such as user workstations, provide traffic to the network at the access layer. Cisco calls this “the door to the network.” Traditional fixed-line technologies include Frame Relay, ISDN, and leased lines. The distribution layer, sometimes called the aggregation layer, collects and controls traffic flow coming from the access layer and forwards it to the core. This middle layer filters and routes packets and limits access based on defined policies. The core layer provides high-speed transmission of data between core switches and routers. The hierarchical model mirrors the multiplexing and demultiplexing of protocols that is recognized in the OSI model.
Technologies in Transition
Bob Dylan’s song “The Times They Are A-Changin’” wasn’t about corporate IT, but maybe the subject deserves its own verse. Any IT professional who gets out of the game for a few months or years will have some catching up to do. The way that companies connect their people and computers is a far cry from corporate networks in the 1990s. Let’s have a look.
When I got into international telecommunications over 25 years ago, we had some key technologies on the way out, and some new ones on the way. Many businesses were linked to branch offices through private lines, also known as leased lines. These were dedicated connections that allowed no other users. Another technology that was common in the early 1990s was X.25. This is a packet-switching technology that allowed for the sharing of bandwidth. Frame Relay, with its fractionalized T1s and E1s, was a platform that was going strong.
A huge breakthrough came to telecom in the form of asynchronous transfer mode (ATM) technology. There were so many things you could do with it. You could run other protocols on top of ATM. There were user-network interfaces (UNI) and network-to-network interfaces (NNI). There were quality of service (QoS) considerations. And you could move a lot of traffic.
The new technologies kept coming fast and furious. There was MPLS, a way of packet switching that eliminated the need for ATM, Frame Relay or Ethernet. There were tunneling protocols that gave rise to virtual private network (VPN). And computing and storage platforms were advancing exponentially.
Jump to today and the whole array of possibilities can be mind blowing. We’ve not only virtualized servers and shrunk storage devices, we also have virtualized networks using SDN and NFV. Analytics, machine learning and artificial intelligence crunch big data, and equipment makers are converging everything into ever-smaller machines. Cloud computing allows many companies to outsource their IT. And mobile access has placed considerable demands on network security and data delivery. All this change almost makes the corporate network unrecognizable.
The End of the Corporate Network?
An article on the TechRepublic website suggests that “the end of the corporate network is coming.” It’s a bold claim. The author Patrick Gray writes that employees have turned to the public network, making the internet the “de facto” network. He notes that many companies are moving to bring-your-own-device programs, making security an even greater challenge.
The Wall Street Journal says that GE is moving its people off the corporate network. Whether that is a good idea remains to be seen. Writer Sarah Castellanos says that IT executives question the reliability and stability of corporate networks. Will changing the network infrastructure in favor of smartphone access make data networks more reliable or stable? That depends on the safeguards and technologies put in place.
Catering to the Corporation
IT professionals can be rather independent individuals – particularly those who are very knowledgeable. Technicians and engineers who know the IT infrastructure like the back of their hand are of great value to their corporate managers. Sometimes those who have been moved about through repeated re-organizations (“Not another re-org!”) or challenged by sweeping changes in technology can feel a bit overwhelmed. But a good IT professional will take it all in stride.
By the term “good” here, I am talking about a skillset that is not learned from tapping commands into computers. Good IT professionals have social and political skills that enable them to support their customers, cooperate with their co-workers, and even “manage” their managers. A professional attitude and manner goes a long way to withstanding political change within the organization or influencing others within it. (Learn more about the personal side of IT in The Importance of Communication Skills for Technical Professionals.)
A corporate network is more than just people. The human beings behind those machines should be treated with respect. Lines of authority, where they exist, should be recognized. And those new to the company or the industry should be assisted where possible. A corporation that is united has advantages over companies that allow tech “cowboys” to do their own thing without regard to others.
Whatever the future holds, it remains true that IT professionals must stay on their toes to face the challenges of working in corporations. Difficulties arise both in technical and social environments. And change is an integral part of the information technology game. Anyone who cannot roll with the punches, adapt to cutting-edge technologies, or deal with difficult people may find their career cut short. On the other hand, those who demonstrate technical professionalism can carve out a niche for themselves in the support of changing corporate networks.