Getty Images/iStockphoto

Optimising net gains: Building efficient and effective network coverage

We look at how companies can gain efficient and effective network coverage around the world without it costing the earth

This article can also be found in the Premium Editorial Download: Computer Weekly: How to keep network costs affordable

It shouldn’t have taken a pandemic to remind everyone across business lines and in executive roles how intrinsically vital networks are to the smooth running of a business, but here we are. And where we are now is in a position of networks being even more important and having to deal securely and effectively with vastly more data in significantly more places.

The vast majority of the C-suite, business leaders and IT decision-makers see digital performance as increasingly critical to business growth and believe enhancing the customer’s digital experience is more and more important for long-term success.

But as traffic loads and sources track upwards sharply, so does the cost of managing all of this distributed data. The question is, how do companies gain efficient and effective network coverage around the world without it costing the earth? 

Data consumption rising rapidly

Before looking at minimising costs, it is worth at looking at just how data usage has exploded. At the heart of this is the new world of hybrid work and the virtual elimination of demarcations between home working and the office.

A May 2023 study from analyst Arthur D. Little, The evolution of data growth in Europe, calculates that average household data consumption over telecommunications networks has steadily grown across Europe. Measuring gigabytes (GB) per month per user, the report states that consumption increased from approximately 5GB/month in 2018 to 15GB/month in 2022, for a growth rate of 25%.

The analyst expects Europe’s mobile data consumption per user to continue growing in the coming years, increasing from the 2022 level of approximately 15GB/month to 75GB/month by 2030, creating an annual growth rate of 25%. It also predicts fixed data consumption per household to grow from the 2022 level of 225GB/month to 900GB/month by 2030, for an annual growth rate of 20%. Video will continue to lead overall growth in fixed as well, accounting for a 65% share in 2022 and increasing to 75% in 2030.

The calculations determined overall monthly data consumption in gigabytes by multiplying the amount of time spent online per day (measured in hours) by the data usage intensity of the applications used during that time (measured in GB/hour). The amount of time spent online appears to plateau at three to four hours a day for mobile (per individual) and six to 10 hours a day for fixed (per home). However, the data intensity of applications such as video conferencing appears to be continuously increasing, which in turn drives up hourly, and ultimately monthly, data consumption.

In a similar vein, the latest version of the OpenVault broadband insights report for the first quarter of 2023 reveals a key trend in the global broadband industry upended as subscribers on usage-based broadband (UBB) plans achieved and slightly exceeded consumption parity with their flat-rate broadband (FRB) plan counterparts for the first time.

Network optimisation supports Etex digital transformation

Etex is driving a digital transformation initiative to become a more customer-centric organisation, and its goal is to harmonise and improve processes, activities and collaboration across its business. Key digital milestones have included the introduction of Salesforce, the launch of a digital customer platform ensuring product transparency and omni-channel product availability, as well as the deployment of automation tools and business applications residing primarily in the Microsoft Azure cloud. 

Delivering digital transformation at this level has increased the pressure on Etex’s network across Europe, the Americas, Africa, Asia and the Middle East. As it moved to more application-aware networking and greater cloud adoption, bandwidth for many of the company’s locations needed to be increased in a secure and agile way, without increasing costs. 

Technology firm GTT has provided Etex with a managed software-defined wide-area network (SD-WAN) across more than 91 sites around the world. The solution is integrated with GTT’s global Tier 1 internet backbone for an enhanced user experience. Together with GTT Cloud Connect – providing private and direct cloud connectivity – and combined with WAN optimisation, the solution accelerates the performance of Etex’s business-critical applications, such as those residing in the Microsoft Azure cloud.

The result is said to be an SD-WAN that provides increased uptime, higher bandwidth, application prioritisation and lower total cost of ownership. 

“GTT has given us a stable network based on SD-WAN, with even higher uptimes than before, higher bandwidth and application prioritisation,” says Etex product manager of external connectivity Erik Arconada.

“Our implementation process has benefited from GTT’s extensive experience in deploying a variety of managed SD-WAN technologies all around the world. Our solution from GTT has helped us significantly increase bandwidth availability in hard-to-reach locations but at the same time decreased the total cost of running our network.” 

In the previous report for the fourth quarter of 2022, the highlighted trend was that average broadband consumption approached a new high of nearly 600GB per month by the end of 2022, and the percentage of subscribers on gigabit-speed tiers was shown to have more than doubled over the course of the previous 12 months.

One of the key findings in this latest report is that significantly higher rates of usage growth among UBB subscribers resulted in average (562.7GB) and median (382GB) monthly UBB consumption that was marginally higher than the 555.5GB average and the 371.1GB median for consumers on FRB plans. Approximately 30% more UBB subscribers enjoyed speeds of 200Mbps or faster than FRB subscribers (63%).

Losing creativity and innovation

With data generation and consumption rising everywhere, what does this mean for businesses? The sharp rise in the amount of data flowing through the network is putting pressure on IT leaders to deploy next-generation infrastructure, but despite the importance the C-suite and business leaders place on digital performance, many IT decision-makers think they are doing enough.

Awareness of this has been on agendas for some time. A report from networks and applications performance and visibility technology firm Riverbed, Rethink possible: visibility and network performance – the pillars of business, notes that the challenge for many IT teams when embarking on the quick introduction of new technology has shifted from imagining the improvements these systems can bring, and their implementation, to maintenance of the new systems.

The Riverbed research also notes that when development becomes a habit in this way, creative innovation often suffers first. In the digital-first age, where competitive advantage is critical, diminished creativity and innovation is not an option for business, it says.

Fundamentally, the report reveals that optimised network infrastructure, visibility and digital experience management are the next frontier for business success. Some 86% of senior managers and boardroom executives say digital performance is increasingly critical to business growth, and 84% believe enhancing the customer’s digital experience is increasingly critical to long-term success.

Yet the report also exposes organisational disconnects and proves that digital expectations and reality do not match up. Despite the clear belief that digital performance is critical to business, four-fifths of IT decision-makers believe they are doing everything they can to make sure their network runs well.

At the same time, nearly three-quarters of the C-suite (73%), business leaders (73%) and IT decision-makers (74%) feel frustrated by their company’s IT performance, with legacy IT infrastructure and slow applications cited as key reasons for poor performance. Moreover, two-thirds of respondents believe the technology their organisations use today has contributed significantly to employee churn. Nearly three-fifths of employees say they are dissatisfied with their job because of outdated technology and under-investment.

But the biggest pain point for IT decision-makers is slow-running systems, as consumers and employees demand always-on networks. This is simply unacceptable, says Riverbed. In the digital-first age, it says, businesses cannot afford the cost that slow-running systems and poor performance will have on their bottom line and the digital experience.

Riverbed says business leaders, the C-suite and IT decision-makers must come together to ensure they invest in the right infrastructure, or they will face business failure. It adds that with the expectation of high digital performance now a staple in people’s working lives, achieving clarity over the cause of infrastructure issues is vital to identify how to overcome the problems and find the right solutions to drive business growth.

More than half (58%) of business decision-makers say they currently do not have enough visibility into the performance of their company’s networks, and 83% of IT decision-makers say there should be more investment in technology solutions that enhance overall IT visibility.

Looking at what managers have sight of in their efforts to stay in control of their networks, Riverbed found that 70% only have visibility over applications, the network or users, and not necessarily full visibility over their infrastructure. Therefore, nearly one-third do not have full visibility over applications, their networks and users.

Read more about network optimisation

Riverbed warns that without comprehensive visibility, there is no way that IT decision-makers can help their businesses measure the digital experience provided by their organisations. This is an area that requires focus, it says, and one that must be addressed if businesses are to steer successfully through digital transformation initiatives. The typical causes of such issues include complex integration with legacy systems, lack of knowledge and resistance to change.

Such challenges were faced recently by global building materials specialist Etex (see case study). The company has around 13,000 employees at offices and manufacturing sites around the world, and the success of its business is highly dependent on each site staying connected to the company’s central IT systems platform to avoid disruption to its production processes. 

To help drive its digital transformation initiative to create a more customer-centric organisation, Etex worked with long-standing partner GTT to evolve its legacy application-aware wide-area network (WAN) to a next level of resilience, reliability and security for its data and voice, enabling improved collaboration globally. Etex now uses a standardised networking platform to operate its centralised and cloud-first IT strategy. 

Specific key benefits are said to be available bandwidth increasing by 50%, cost per megabyte decreasing by 30% and the number of network incidents decreasing by 60%. Summing up the partnership, Etex group CIO Dirk Altgassen says: “Thanks to the long-term collaboration with GTT and their reliable global SD-WAN, secure Cloud Connect and enterprise-wide SIP Trunking solutions, Etex has been able to implement its IT strategy to benefit end users and optimise overall cost of ownership.”

Technology needs to empower business

In conclusion, what fundamentally makes optimisation so crucial is that businesses simply need to be able to construct and manage digital transformation initiatives, set expectations with the wider organisation, and meet the needs of stakeholders and employees alike.

Businesses that do not have full visibility over the network, and which have IT departments that cannot identify and fix pain points, will see digital transformation efforts falter. Most importantly, lack of technology management has a business cost that nobody wants and may not be one that businesses can afford to pay.

The bottom line is that technology should not hold business back. It should be empowering the business and giving employers and employees a platform on which to be creative, innovative and, above all, productive.

Read more on Network monitoring and analysis

Data Center
Data Management