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The Customer-Centric Network
|14 мая 2009|
The title of this column is a bit of an oxymoron to a network engineer. We tend to think of the customer as sitting at the edge of the network, or even slightly beyond the edge. The center of the network is where all of the customers’ traffic is aggregated and managed, safely removed from any customer’s premises.
The engineer’s view of the network breaks it into nicely segmented pieces like access, transport and switching. This allows for an orderly approach to developing network architectures, and order in a network is a good thing to have.
Customers don’t think about networks this way, if indeed they think about them at all. A customer sees a device for communicating, retrieving information, or accessing content. Customers may have a vague awareness of the networks connecting their devices to other devices or content sources, but consciously think about them only when they get a monthly service bill.
I readily admit that I think like an engineer. This is something I usually state with pride, but generally take for granted. From time to time, however, it is important for me to remind myself that not everyone thinks like an engineer. Like realizing that not everyone has a mental image of a map—aligned with north pointing up, of course—when giving or receiving directions.
In a similar way, network operators need to consider the customer’s perspective periodically. This sounds so obvious that it should not need to be stated. A little reflection on how we view networks reveals that we don’t do it often enough, however.
We think about access, transport and switching. Customers think about content, devices and connectivity. We measure performance in bit error rates and mean time to repair. Customers measure network service in the negative: they only notice the network when it fails.
How does taking the customer’s point of view change things? For one, it turns the relationship between networks and devices to access them on its head. In the days of the plain black telephone, it was easy to think of that telephone as merely a device to access the network. It’s quite different to think of the primary purpose of the network as supporting the next generation of consumer electronics.
Consider the implications of a device like the Amazon Kindle. Besides ranking as one of the most insightful Christmas gifts I have ever received from my wife, it is the perfect companion for anyone who travels a bit and reads a lot. Whether sitting on a beach or in an airport lounge, my next book is less than a minute away via a wireless connection to the Kindle Store.
I don’t mean for this to be a plug for Amazon, though. What I find most striking about the above scenario is the network connection that facilitates the instant gratification of my book-buying urge. My next reading selection is delivered by Sprint’s wireless network, even though I have never had a business relationship with Sprint in the past and don’t in the present.
Amazon has a business relationship with Sprint, though. On one level, Amazon buying bulk access from Sprint to enable its Whispernet service—Amazon’s brand name for my connection to the Kindle Store—is quite unremarkable. After all, Sprint has a long history of providing wholesale network services to MVNOs.
At the same time, I see something profoundly different here. My Kindle is first and foremost an electronic book in my mind. Only occasionally do I view it as a communication device, and then only for the purpose of buying my next book. Sprint may still derive most of its revenue from customers using cell phones, but how far are we from the day when all of our electronic devices have similar incidental network connections? And what does that mean for the way we operate and build networks?
We are at the dawn of a new era for communication networks. Providing network interfaces for a variety of electronic devices may be straightforward from a technical standpoint, but the implications for the networks to which they connect will be far reaching and fundamental. We live in interesting times indeed.