As industrial manufacturers outsource more of their business processes and employ Enterprise 2.0 services and applications, many are partnering around the world to find the best skills and cost base. Increasingly, in doing so, they have to share unprecedented amounts of data with both partners and suppliers. Implementing an "intelligent network" as the platform to perform real-time business process facilitation serves as the underlying supply chain infrastructure design that seamlessly aligns external supply chain operations and partners with internal operations, enabling manufacturers to focus on creating a sustainable competitive advantage and accelerate time-to-value of business process changes.
The Evolving Role of the Network
The network has always been used to move information among applications; however, it has been an especially challenging environment in manufacturing because of its highly fragmented nature. As manufacturers increasingly adopt a globally-distributed operations model, as well as high-density Enterprise 2.0 applications, real-time business process activity monitoring is becoming more important.
In the past, manufacturers could probably deal with the headquarters location and maybe a few remote data centers without having to worry much about other sites. Today, manufacturers have vastly extended supply chains in which there may be active participants in dozens of countries doing design and manufacturing, say, for one wing of a jumbo jet in the aerospace supply chain. Therefore, the volume of data that their networks must manage increases, making an evolved network -- one that acts as an extended nervous system that can monitor, understand and act on information -- essential to success in the worldwide marketplace. This added level of responsibility necessitates a more intelligent network that can manage the proliferation of data and information and enable greater interactions along the supply chain.
One key area of network intelligence is its role as the front-end, or virtualization engine, for many IT resources. An illustration of this concept is the firewall service modules available in certain switches and routers, whereby users can establish virtual contact for different types of connectivity with different rule sets and different security capabilities. Previously, those services would have been handled individually by stand-alone appliances. Now, they're embedded within the core fabric of the network and can be addressed in a virtual way. This can also be accomplished with network architectures that combine different capabilities, functions and features, and other certain appliance-based services to make them function as one.
A second area is transformation. The intelligent network is no longer just moving packets of information from point A to point B. Now, in certain cases, the network infrastructure can actually transform the data as it moves through the environment, eliminating the need for this process to take place in an application environment and improving upon the approach historically addressed with middleware. For example, intelligent networks can enable a manufacturer to handle order fulfillment from two large retail chains, each of which has varied and multiple legacy protocols for their specific, individual transactions. This process was typically addressed through middleware, but the intelligent network can analyze traffic flow and customer requirements to effectively and accurately manage information from each retail chain.
Security is a third area of network intelligence. In the past, network security was focused primarily on protecting the perimeter; however, as more and more sophisticated threats emerge, security has to be pervasive throughout the supply chain -- not just at the connection points. This means that the network must be more intelligent in recognizing an intrusion underway inside the perimeter or a certain pattern of traffic that may be indicative of supplier fraud.
What Does an Intelligent Network Mean for Your Supply Chain?
Integrating intelligence into the network can positively impact the manufacturing supply chain through quantity and quality. Quantity means having the right amount of bandwidth, including scalability and availability. Quality is the ability to capture and act on the network's intelligence.
Intelligent networks can also enable the real-time, global collaboration that is required for product design, manufacture and distribution. As multinational manufacturing companies continue to disperse their operations with multiple partners, vendors and outsourced functions in different countries, networks can be architected to mirror this business model. This architecture enables a holistic means of communication and cooperation that was previously impeded by insufficient bandwidth and linear tools, such as faxes, courier services or e-mails, which are inappropriate and ineffective in promoting global business exchanges.
Additionally, integrating intelligence into the network naturally yields higher network performance. Since the functions that were previously handled by applications are incorporated into the network, the source code of applications does not need to be reprogrammed. This minimizes risk, which is introduced whenever code is changed, and provides a higher level of quality because much or all of the functionality has already been deployed and tested. Further, the cost of labor goes down because programmers and IT professionals are not always needed to make changes to code, thus making intelligent networks more cost-effective.
A Roadmap for Planning an Intelligent Network
As intelligence migrates to the network, the way an organization designs its network architecture becomes fundamentally important. Planning and implementing an intelligent network starts with the enterprise architecture, the global plan for how all of the parts within a company's IT function will be constructed. Getting to the right architecture for network-based services is usually an incremental journey of several coordinated steps.
It is first necessary to create a foundation for the architecture, which is the business strategy. One danger in pursuing a business strategy without incorporating network-centric principles is that the business value can be lost in the vast functional potential.
Next, the company must create the foundational assumptions for the architecture. During this process, the company's strategic requirements and end goals are analyzed, and a set of architecture principles is articulated based on existing legacy processes and network infrastructure. Many industries are more challenged by this than others. Automobile manufacturing has significant amounts of legacy, such as capital asset infrastructures, while the life sciences industry has very little. This process also includes analyzing the business functions that the company needs in order to fulfill its business strategy. The primary benefit of employing enterprise architecture strategies early on in the IT planning process is the ability to create more evergreen business value that keeps pace with the dynamic global marketplace.
Finally, once these requirements are articulated, enterprise architecture advisors can identify the information and technology services that support the business functions and processes needed to achieve the business strategy, and architect a future-proofed network. This means that the network will not necessarily need a major overhaul to upgrade to Enterprise 3.0 applications or beyond.
It is only through mastery of all the details of how the current network is constructed, how the current and planned enterprise architecture employs the network, how network services will be exploited and how the business strategy will affect all of this, that the right architectural roadmap can be constructed and the right network platform for real-time business process activity monitoring can be implemented.
The network's role in the manufacturing sector has evolved dramatically to reflect the changing nature of global business and a dispersed supply chain. Specifically, the network has become more intelligent to perform some of the same functions that were handled previously by middleware or applications. As a result, the "intelligent network" has had a measurable impact on the efficiency of the manufacturing supply chain by increasing collaboration, streamlining business processes, improving performance and enhancing security, while minimizing costs.
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