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Feature Article
April 2000

History Repeats Itself:
The Promise Of A New Network Operating System


There is little doubt that the re-tooling of the public network is well under way. Nationwide fiber deployments, ongoing investments in gigabit/terabit router technology, and a host of broadband access solutions emphasize the intense focus on a radically new infrastructure.

Despite the huge investment in networking hardware, service providers know that more is required from an infrastructure than the simple transport of large volumes of data.

The missing link between the simple low-cost transport of bits and the next-generation service utopia of which we hear so much, is a new network operating system -- increasingly referred to as "service-ware" -- that sits on top of the existing infrastructure.

Although this concept of a network operating system may be familiar to most enterprise network managers, the concept of service-ware may not be as easily understood or widely accepted. After all, the public telephone networks that exist today operate just fine.

However, voice networks were designed with a set of fundamentally different requirements than those today. Voice networks were clearly focused on a single application: dial-tone. Tomorrow's network will have to satisfy a different set of demands. Service providers need to build a more dynamic service environment that can be ordered, configured, and even customized by the user that is paying the bill. They will need an intimate linkage between the applications and the networking equipment.

Today's massive deployment of transport technology can be easily compared to a  similar market dynamic a decade ago: the growth in acceptance of the personal computer. The business industry invested heavily in new computing platforms that promised a rapid rise in productivity. Billions were spent on computing power --- what you might call a "new infrastructure" -- well before the consumer market opened its arms. It wasn't until a new operating system was thrust upon the market that an explosion in new applications, and indeed in new users, actually took place within the consumer ranks.

Microsoft's timely delivery of a new operating system (Windows) for an infrastructure (personal computers) made it easy for Joe Q. Public to pick up his checkbook and use it at his neighborhood computer store. There he was influenced to purchase the most powerful PC his budget would allow. More importantly, the operating system freed him purchase a cart full of software that he could plug in and run on his new toy with little or no requirement to understand or learn the intricate inter-working of the technology on which it was running.

It could be argued that Microsoft was in the right place at the right time, or that the growth in mass consumer acceptance of the personal computer would have eventually taken place any way. Regardless, the new operating system of that decade performed three basic functions, invaluable to the millions who purchased and used PCs. Those functions were clearly instrumental in the success of the new computing infrastructure of personal computers, and are equally applicable in the new computing infrastructure being deployed today. The operating system:

  1. Stored and maintained information about the system, the files, the peripherals�and even the users of those systems in a clear and consistent way. That information made the system easier to use for the less technically-inclined, and increased the ability of developers to deliver customizable software solutions for the mass market.

  2. Simplified implementation and configuration of new applications. Regardless of the content, the operating system acted as an intermediary between the user, applications software, and the system to ease the installation and use of new, valuable software solutions. It even went so far as to simplify the customization of those applications to meet the needs of the individual users.

  3. Implemented rules, or policy, throughout the system to improve the overall effectiveness and reliability of the system. For all of its faults, the GUI-based operating system facilitated a consistent working relationship between the user and the system by implementing standard operating procedures that could be easily learned, implemented, and customized to meet the needs of individuals or large organizations.
The new infrastructure that is being constructed today is similar to the new computing platforms of a decade ago that exploded in popularity and use after the deployment of the Windows operating system. It is highly complex and little understood by the general public. It is clearly capable of providing tremendous value that, until now, has required great effort to configure and customize in a cost-effective way. Most importantly, it has grown in importance and interest to both the business and the consumer alike, making it a prime candidate for a new operating system that offers the ability to maintain information, simplify the use of the network, and implement policy to maintain order.

Obviously the implementation will vary. The networks of today have the added complexity of maintaining information on thousands of components and products and possibly millions of users. Simplifying the use of the network can, in many cases, require the coordination of multiple software and hardware platforms. And the implementation of policy, or rules, within the network can be as much an issue of understanding the needs of the users as the capabilities of the equipment. That means that very few will have the overall skills to understand and implement these systems on a grand scale.

Delivering an effective implementation of service-ware will require an intimate knowledge of all the architectural components; a dedication to understanding the users; and a track record of delivering highly complex, yet reliable, integrated systems. Few vendors today can deliver that promise. Regardless, vendors and service providers alike are on the path to develop a new network operating system that will deliver the same functionality and ease-of-use to public computer networks that Microsoft's Windows delivered to the personal computer.

Mark Hartley is a market advisor for Nortel Networks. Nortel Networks is a global leader in telephony, data, e-business, and wireless solutions for the Internet. The company had 1999 U.S. GAAP revenues of US$21.3 billion and serves carrier, service provider and enterprise customers globally. Today, Nortel Networks is creating a high-performance Internet that is more reliable and faster than ever before. It is redefining the economics and quality of networking and the Internet through Unified Networks that promise a new era of collaboration, communications and commerce.

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