Thinking Outside the Box

A friend of mine at the local port authority recently taught me the value of looking at old things in new ways. My pal's job involves the administration of a stretch of Interstate 95 that runs through New Jersey and New York. His responsibilities include coordinating maintenance activities, analyzing sources of congestion, rerouting traffic and developing expansion plans. As he described his job, I drew parallels between his professional headaches and those suffered by many network managers I know.

"It must be frustrating, dealing with all the complaints you get," I said. "I mean, after all, you can't just add another lane, or slap on new on-ramps. You pretty much have to live with what you've got."

"You bet!" he said. "My job used to drive me crazy." He smiled. "But once I realized and accepted that I couldn't change I-95, I decided to change the way I look at it instead. Now I love my job."

He went on to describe how he recently began thinking of his little stretch of I-95 as a service rather than a highway. He explained how the road supported freight forwarding among local and national businesses and how it offered travel services to area residents, commuters and cross-country travelers.

Once he began looking at I-95 through the eyes of the people who used it, he said, he began to find opportunities to improve its services, even within its obvious physical constraints. As a result, he now understands and empathizes with his customers more, and their respect for him has improved, as well. And he got this for free, without adding a single new lane or on-ramp.

Funny, the more he talked about highways, the more I seemed to learn about networks. Could we apply the lessons of his professional awakening to the way we manage our companies' networks?

I began thinking of things that frustrate my network manager buddies.

They bust their tails every day, replacing LAN hubs with switches, implementing and upgrading network and system management products and migrating from "old" technologies like NetWare to the latest versions of Windows NT. For all their hard work -- scouring stacks of manuals during off-hours, coaxing new systems into service over countless long weekends, enduring the persistent beeps of their pagers -- can they honestly tell themselves they're improving life in their little piece of the world?

Could "thinking outside the box," like my highway friend did, be of any help to my network manager friends?

You bet it can. But before network managers can begin to think outside the box, they have to learn to "see" the box. The box, I believe, is embodied in one of our industry's most ubiquitous phrases: client/server computing.

Vendors conceived client/server to encourage us to spend our time and talent, and our companies' money, on connecting computers to each other.

Implementing client/server as we all know, means buying and deploying the latest systems, installing the hottest network management products, and, most of all, pulling more bandwidth through our walls. But what's the payoff?

Spend enough, we're told, and we'll eventually achieve some kind of client/server Nirvana. But if that's true, why don't many of our users and managers seem to be getting any happier as we move along the way?

Client/server is a tool, not a goal. Without a practical goal in sight, our investments in client/server often don't get us anywhere.

So what's the goal? My highway management friend figured it out. More than just asphalt, steel and stone, a highway is a service that connects people to each other. It supports business processes: people meeting each other, exchanging goods and working together.

Likewise, we build networks to support business processes within companies: people communicating with each other, exchanging ideas and working together. We don't just manage client/server networks, interconnecting computers through wires, hubs and switches. We manage client/client networks, using network technology to integrate people. Until we get to know a little about those people -- what they do, how they work and what frustrates them -- we'll never be able to make them happy.

With the millennium's mandatory upgrades looming -- to Windows 2000, ATM technology and high-speed switches, to name a few -- maybe our first upgrade should be to ourselves? Who knows, a little thinking outside the box might lead to buying fewer boxes -- and to happier users. --Al Cini is a senior consultant with Computer Methods Corp. (Marlton, N.J.) specializing in systems and network integration. Contact him at