Will the real Ethernet Fabric please stand up…or, are some Vendors playing fast and loose with terminology (again)?

Many will remember the early days of fixed-format Ethernet Switches, when the development of resilient configurations was initiated as an alternative to existing Modular Chassis systems. While we can debate who invented what, and when – SynOptics, 3Com, and even Digital all fielded competing designs – the really significant thing about these solutions is that they were genuinely resilient. All were based on a backbone capability that virtualized what the traditional chassis relied on in hardware. Thus, “stacking” – in a true, resilient, integrated way was born.

Then, along came the pretenders. These were the vendors that wanted to share the spotlight even though they didn’t have anything innovative to bring to the party; even though some only daisy-chained switches, some used Spanning Tree, most consumed relatively low-speed front-panel uplink ports, and most didn’t support QoS. If they could manage two or more interconnected Switches with a single IP Address they wanted to stake a claim. Eventually, everyone claimed to do stacking, which ultimately commoditized and devalued the term. This sad state of affairs is the reason Avaya insists on using the term, “stackable chassis” for our genuine, full-featured technology.

The Software-Defined WAN (SD-WAN) label appears to be taking a similar journey, which again is causing confusion in the industry. Respected industry analyst Zeus Kerravala echoes my sentiments in a blog  discussing his frustration when the aspirations of marketing trumps the realities of engineering.

This is not simply an esoteric debate about the proper names to apply to respective technologies. When the same name is used to market vastly different capabilities, it lays the burden of decoding what’s what on the customers. So, rather than focusing on helping businesses solve specific real-world problems, this exercise in obfuscation just makes matters worse.

We’re seeing the same thing with use of the term, Fabrics – driven, it appears, by the need to ground Software-Defined Network (SDN) offers on some form of Fabric. The logic seems to be that in order to have a credible SDN story you also need to offer a Fabric. While there may be some basis in fact for the logic, it doesn’t automatically translate that any networking solution has the right to call themselves a Fabric.

This is part formal standards definition and part real-world capability. A few years ago, and at roughly the same time, the two main industry standards bodies – the IEEE and the IETF – both established working committees to address the question of Fabric-based networking. The IEEE eventually went with something called Shortest Path Bridging, (SPB, formalized as 802.1aq) and the IETF placed their bet on the rather funkily named Transparent Interconnection of Lots of Links (TRILL, formalized as RFC 6325, et al).

Unsurprisingly, both standards take a very different approach to solving what was meant to be roughly the same problem: creating agile, reliable, and scalable networks that seamlessly complement server/application virtualization in the Data Center, and next-generation networking initiatives at the network edge. In short, a Fabric.

Remembering that this is an opinion piece and not a white paper, I’m going to be unapologetically subjective: SPB is by far the superior of the two. At the risk of over-simplifying things, but in the interests of space and time, I’ll stake the claim that SPB represents a re-imagining of Ethernet for the 21st Century, while TRILL is simply Spanning Tree overdosing on steroids. But, I’ll at least give TRILL the credit of being a standard – indeed, at last count it’s about ten standards – and that’s more than most of these Johnny-come-lately “Fabrics” can claim.

TRILL’s biggest problem is that it’s not a particularly good Fabric technology and nobody seems very interested in implementing it — certainly not in a standards-compliant form. Cisco use a bit of TRILL in their FabricPath offering, while Brocade uses a different part in their Virtual Cluster Switching offering. Neither is pure TRILL and neither is interoperable, but at least they have the right to call their solutions a Fabric…more or less. Juniper took a shot at the Fabric challenge with QFabric, but this went largely unnoticed by the rest of the industry, and certainly by potential customers.

The only Fabric standard that has garnered wide-spread support is SPB. Avaya implements this as our Fabric Connect technology and we’ve been instrumental throughout the evolution of the standard (or, perhaps I should say “standards” as SPB is now standardized by both the IEEE and the IETF (6329)). The Avaya Fabric Connect implementation leverages the native extensibility of SPB to add significant Enterprise-centric capabilities in the areas of integrated L3 Virtualization, L3 Routing, and IP Multicast. However, all the while, we remain interoperable with other standards-compliant SPB implementers such as Alcatel-Lucent, Huawei, and even HP.

And that brings us to the pseudo-Fabrics being touted in the context of SDN. Perhaps answering these questions brings us to a conclusion:

  • Is a networking overlay that adds yet another layer of protocol and complexity – while making some wildly optimistic assumptions about topology, reachability, and failover – really a Fabric?
  • Is something that is limited to the confines of the Data Center, can only be run as a service on a computing platform, or is bottlenecked by a controller really a Fabric?
  • If so, where’s the end-to-end nature, the step-function in agility, scalability, and availability?

While the IEEE does not necessarily hold the mortgage on what is or is not a Fabric and any pioneer is free to innovative to their heart’s content, a pretty authoritative line has been drawn in the sand. There are, quite rightly, well-defined expectations of what constitutes a Fabric. Customers have a right to expect that a “Fabric-based” solution does – in fact – deliver Fabric-centric capabilities. And, crucially, it’s a solution that matches their business needs and expectations.

More and more, we’re seeing people appreciate that a Fabric – a genuine Fabric – is the delivery vehicle for the technological and commercial benefits that businesses desperately crave. After all, it’s not about the protocol, it’s about what it delivers.

To this point, Zeus Kerravala recently posted the “Network of 2020.” Interesting stuff, and it particularly resonates with me because of the clear and consistent alignment with the message that I preach day-in, day-out. I’d recommend that you pay particular attention to those attributes that businesses really need to focus on; those that will enable them to advance faster, avoid forklifts upgrade, and aren’t burdened with high capital investments and hidden operational complexity and cost.

If this has sparked some interest, then it would appear that I’ve done a good day’s work. Many of you already know that I’m pretty passionate about this subject and about what Avaya can offer. However, even if you’re considering alternatives from another vendor, I would simply encourage you to delve into exactly what’s been proposed with a good, hard look at what’s actually behind the top-level marketing message.

For those of you that are more than interested, the good news is that there’s a solution out there taking full advantage of the standardized Ethernet Fabric technology: Avaya SDN Fx™ Architecture is a standardized end-to-end Fabric-centric architecture that solves the challenges left over by decades of legacy multi-protocol client-server networking. It maintains backwards compatibility, while delivering next-generation capabilities; providing a seamless evolution to SDN. And it’s available today.

Do your research. Challenge your vendor to a proof of concept. Don’t buy simply on theoretical benefits and a hope that the future will deliver on the promises of today. Most importantly, make sure that you’re implementing technology solutions that are focused on driving positive business outcomes.

Related Articles:

Avaya Demos Wireless Location Based Services at Avaya ENGAGESM Dubai

Wireless Location Based Services (WLBS) are usually discussed in the areas of customer or guest engagement. However, there are also valuable use cases in the areas of employee engagement and facility safety. The WLBS demo at #AvayaENGAGE in Dubai highlights the employee engagement use case. Further, it demonstrates the power of the Avaya Breeze™ Platform and Unified Communications.

As a real world example … think about a public area, a store, a hotel, school, etc. A window is broken. A call reporting the incident comes to the control center. The controller needs to identify which resources are closest to the event. The closest member of the security team needs to respond to cordon off the area and determine if anyone was injured. A member of the janitorial team needs to be dispatched to clean up the glass and a member of the engineering team needs to respond to temporarily cover the opening and have the glass company implement a replacement.

The WLBS display shows the location of all devices probing the WLAN. The user interface allows the controller to sort displayed devices by role, for instance, eliminating all guest devices from the display or simply displaying the security team members. Further, the device indicators can be color coded based on the role to simplify identification. Once the correct person is identified, they can be selected on the screen, and either sent an SMS or called on their mobile device. This allows the controller to quickly identify the appropriate resource based on their location and contact them to respond to the situation.

For the #AvayaENGAGE Dubai demonstration, Avaya employees are being tracked in the common areas of the pavilion. Information about each employee has been captured in a database, including MAC address, device phone number, name and skill or role at the event. For instance, subject matter experts (SMEs) in Networking, Contact Center, and Unified Communications have been identified. If a guest has a question requiring an SME, the closest SME can be identified and contacted to see if they’re available to answer questions.

The following diagram shows all devices being tracked by the 23 WAPs participating in the WLBS demo. There were 352 guests at the time the screenshot was taken, so most of the circles are light blue. However, if you look closely, you can see a few other colors, such as the dark blue Executive and the tan Network SME. Solid dots indicate the devices are connected to the Avaya WLAN. Hollow dots indicated that the device is probing the network, but not connected to the WLAN.

Wireless Location Based Services1

As you can see, an unfiltered display, while providing crowd level information, isn’t very helpful in finding specific people or skills. The filter selections on the right of the screen provide filtering functions. Displayed devices can be limited to one or more skills or by name.

The next screenshot shows filtering enabled for executives. The dot for Jean Turgeon (JT) was selected. At this point, the operator could select to send an SMS message to JT or call his mobile device.

Wireless Location Based Services2

The WLBS solution consists of three Avaya components:

The WLAN at #AvayaENGAGE Dubai is implemented with Avaya 9144 WAPs. Each 802.1 wireless network client device probes the network every few seconds to determine which WAPs are available to provide service. Every WAP within the broadcast range of the network device will detect and respond to the probe message. The probe and response messages enable better network service, particularly when the device is moving and needs to change WAPs to get better service. The probe messages are done at the MAC level, therefore, each WAP in the broadcast area receives a message from every MAC address in range every few seconds.

When location services are enabled in the 9100 WAP (simple non-disruptive change via web interface or profile update in Avaya WLAN Orchestration System), each WAP sends the MAC address and distance information to a network address. In this demo, the information is sent to a Avaya Snap-in that collects the data from all of the WAPs, sorts the data based on MAC address and runs the data through a triangulation algorithm to calculate the location of the client device based on the known locations of the WAPs.

A second Avaya Snap-in manages device identity management. This Snap-in could work with something like Avaya Identity Engines to provide user information for the MAC addresses detected by the WAPs. Since the #AvayaENGAGE Dubai demo is a temporary environment, the Snap-in simply provides the ability to load a CSV (comma-separated value) file with the Avaya employee information. This provides the ability to map Avaya employee identities to the MAC addresses of their mobile devices.

The user interface Snap-in provides the display shown above. It takes the output from the triangulation Snap-in and displays it on a map in a Web browser window. It also uses information in the identity Snap-in to sort devices owned by Avaya employees vs. Engage guests, hotel employees and other hotel guests. The skill classification captured in the CSV file enables finer level filtering and skill based color indication on the screen.

When the icon for an employee on the map is selected, the pop-up frame shown above appears. Communication to the Avaya employees is performed via the Zang cloud-based communication platform. When the user selects the SMS button shown above, a screen appears to enter the message, which is sent to the Zang service which then sends to the employee’s device. If the Call button is selected, the Zang service initiates a phone call between the number shown in the Call-me-at field above and the Avaya employee’s phone number listed in the CSV import.

I’d like to say this is rocket science, but the Avaya infrastructure components and Avaya Breeze make it straight-forward architecture. Avaya believes a key to scalability is putting power in the edge devices to minimize back haul data, but also to simplify management. The intelligence of the AOS software running in the 9100s makes it simple to collect device location information. The Breeze Platform provides a full JAVA-based programing environment with object classes for Avaya communication product functionality. Finally, Zang was designed for business people to be able to programmatically integrate communication functionality into business processes without a major investment in infrastructure or expertise.

Keep watching this space. We’re already planning for the WLBS Demo at Avaya Engage 2017, in Las Vegas, February 12-15.

5 Key Steps to Modernizing the Federal Government

Modernizing the communications systems of government agencies creates significant challenges—and opportunities—for the new Administration. Key to improving services for the estimated 324 million Americans, the new Administration will need to modernize the communications systems of Federal Government agencies.

Four significant trends have arisen over the last several years that are challenging Federal IT systems and budgets, which can be addressed through technology and innovation for better service at more cost-efficient rates:

  1. A three-year decline in citizen satisfaction between the kind of communications citizens expect and the kind many agencies provide today.
  2. Security incidents in public and private networks are growing at an alarming rate across the globe, with a 38% increase in cyber threats in 2015. The total overall cost to the global economy puts the damage to enterprise businesses somewhere between $375 and $575 billion a year.
  3. More powerful, mobile devices and the impact of consumer-oriented technologies has changed how people interact with the modern world, requiring a shift away from legacy technology That small device a growing number of the populace carries is often responsible for keeping them connected 24/7.
  4. Citizens have expressed their desire for seamless, multi-channel experiences. In 2013, 82% of customers surveyed by Avaya and British Telecom said they prefer organizations that offer multiple channels to meet different needs.

To help the new Administration, an eBook from Avaya Government Solutions, Transforming Government Business for the Digital Age: How to understand and prepare for IT modernization, provides a guide for analyzing and solving the following questions:

  • What communications challenges are government agencies facing?
  • What can government agencies do to improve communications systems?
  • How much do you estimate is the amount of waste in the Federal Government?

Among the recommendations found in the eBook for improving citizen services and creating cost efficiencies at the same time, the new Administration might consider:

  • Consolidating and automating routine tasks inside the network to reduce costs and save resources
  • Simplifying and creating a unified hub for communications systems that syncs up existing technology with technology innovations
  • Implementing an open standards architecture platform that can operate with a variety of service needs
  • Assessing and optimizing an organization’s IT infrastructure and application platform across capabilities and continuity
  • Ensuring reliability and security of network activity so that it is safe, secure and running at peak performance

Stepping into the Oval Office on January 20, 2017 for the first time, the new President will face many challenges. Recommendations found in the eBook can help Federal Government agencies to cost efficiently meet the needs of a new generation of Americans needing assistance.

How Do You Create a Tech-Driven Guest Experience?

Hospitality, one of the world’s most prevalent and influential industries, is using tech-driven guest experiences to boost success. In addition to the usual business trips and family vacations, hotels are a staple for everything from weddings to global conferences to concerts and shows. At resorts, hotels, casinos and cruises, billions of people worldwide book reservations every year, each expecting a guest experience that goes above and beyond the norm.

Hospitality leaders are largely responsible for ensuring that experiences do in fact meet and exceed guest expectations. Nearly 90% of companies today compete solely on the basis of the customer experience, and that certainly includes hotel entities. The guest experience is everything—especially in a smart, digital world where consumers’ demand for speed, agility and quality are at an all-time high.

Guests are focusing less on room service and bell boys and more on 24×7 virtual concierges and personalized mobile travel guides, which proves that the tech-driven guest experience has arrived. In a recent Information Age article, Avaya UK Managing Director Steve Rafferty explores the transformative power of a mobile app for delivering a truly custom—even predictive—guest experience. In Rafferty’s much-needed discussion about the ever-evolving hospitality industry, he concludes that “technology, customized for the hospitality industry and backed by solid in-person service, can help hoteliers today to deliver the superior and personalized experiences their guests expect.”

This leaves just one question: how can hospitality leaders go about creating this tech-driven guest experience, specifically through infrastructure investments and/or upgrades?

Many organizations have proven that a next-gen guest experience is very possible to achieve. To better ensure guest safety, the Wynn Hotel in Las Vegas boasts video surveillance speeds that are up to 11 times faster than its competitors. The Rotana Group, an international hotel and entertainment chain, uses advanced contact center and IP solutions to enable secure and seamless communications across its properties worldwide, supporting a more 360-degree guest experience.

Three Ways to Create a Tech-Driven Guest Experience

So, as a leader or IT decision maker within the hospitality industry, how can you proactively address your guest’s needs with the right technology? Here are three significant ways a customer engagement platform can help drive the desired guest experience:

  1. Innovate at the first point of contact.

    There’s no denying that for most guests, the first point of contact is a hotel’s web site. A 2015 study conducted by Expedia found that consumers visit an average of 38 websites before booking a reservation. Overall, travelers tend to double the time they spend surfing the web the week before booking. Needless to say, there’s plenty of opportunity for hoteliers to elevate guests’ web experiences with the right technology.

    How? As opposed to offering guests a web form (or worse, a dreaded 800 number), you can offer guests live chat support via WebRTC. Of course, guests should also be able to easily escalate their live chat session to voice if needed—and from there to video chat or screen sharing for particularly complex reservations or issues. A customer engagement platform created on an open, extensible architecture lets you support this dynamic environment with the ability to create apps that customize and extend your call center. This can help you to create new points of differentiation, or change them as you see fit. So you can ensure a stellar guest experience from the first point of contact onward.

  2. Improve resource matching.

    Front desk workers must skillfully handle calls from families, school groups, business travelers, wedding planners, convention planners, language specialists, and more. With hotels becoming more dynamic by the minute, the need for improved resource matching is vital. This means ensuring callers can be quickly and intelligently routed to the right subject matter experts—regardless of where they reside within the organization—based on rich context, KPIs and organizational goals across all channels.

    An advanced customer engagement platform tracks guest conversations and consolidates customer data across all of these channels (i.e., web, mobile, contact center), creating a real-time data repository for hotel workers to track, collect and share relevant information across teams, processes and customer touch points. This ensures callers will always be paired with the best subject matter experts available. Additionally, this allows agents to focus on callers’ needs without having to ask for the same information multiple times (which, as we all know, is a huge customer frustration). Above all, the technology helps to deliver more consistent and meaningful experiences at the individual guest level.

  3. Enhance the mobile UX.

    Research shows that more than 75% of travelers consider their smartphones to be critical. Additionally, about 1 in 3 people use their smartphones more when they travel than they do at home. As Rafferty explained, mobility is a key way for hoteliers to capitalize on guests’ needs and deliver the experiences they’re looking for.

    There are many ways mobility can be strategically leveraged. For example:

    • Use Wi-Fi location services to recognize when guests arrive
    • Push notifications to alert guests of changes to their stays
    • Use mobile room key authentication, verses a swipe card, for added day-to-day convenience

Perhaps most importantly, hoteliers must offer guests a sophisticated and integrated mobile app experience. This experience should include such things as seamlessly integrated self service and callback options, something that a customer engagement platform easily supports.
Mobility is not only advantageous for usage with guests’ mobile phones—it also addresses a need for staff to be mobile. For example, as mentioned in the point above, callers must be routed to the right subject matter experts regardless of where they reside within the organization. Mobility helps ensure subject matter experts are accessible, wherever they happen to be located on the property, for handling both guest inquires as well as internal operations.

Technology is changing the hotel guest experience. There’s ample room for innovation within the industry, and there’s a way to efficiently, securely and flexibly enable guest experiences that continually exceed expectations. How does Avaya know for sure? Avaya supplied the technology that transformed the Wynn Hotel, the Rotana Group, and many other world-renowned hospitality organizations. A customer engagement platform built on open, extensible architecture gives you an open scope, meaning anything is possible in terms of the guest experiences you want to deliver.