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Networking Notes: Prepare Your Network for Tomorrow's Software

The choices we make in terms of our network infrastructure will matter for a lot more than how quickly we can view streaming video. They might end up being our lifeline to apps our businesses (or academic careers, or household budgets) depend on.

Networking Notes

Last week, we featured a roundup on the happenings at Networld Interop in Las Vegas, taking most of our time to focus on hardware announcements. This week, I want to zero in on a chat I had with a company that has some ideas that pertain to networking, even if it isn't exactly a "networking company," and how the trend that company is riding is going to affect us.

“ Practical networkers are going to find themselves in the marketing cross hairs of companies trying to push the convenience and apparent simplicity of running apps out of a Web browser, but those apps are going to assume a certain baseline in terms of network capability.”

Most of Interop is focused on stuff the so-called "enterprise" market is interested in. "Enterprise" is one of those terms with a lot of wiggle room. Some people say it's a company of 1,000 employees or more, some say it's 50 or more, and one software engineer I know says "any company I can sell a support contract to." Companies that make some money on practical networkers, SOHO and small business users — think D-Link and Netgear — have a presence at Interop, but the focus is on larger companies.

Here's a comment I gleaned from the show floor that pertains to this week's column:

D-Link's representatives, in particular, noted that as more and more small offices come to demand more from their networks, there's definite pressure to migrate capabilities previously seen only in their higher-end kit. Management features, in particular, are at the top of the list for many small businesses.

And improved features in SOHO/SMB/home-oriented network gear are going to increasingly move out of the "nice-to-have" column, and into the "critical" column.

I skipped a keynote and sat down with Raju Vegesna of Zoho, an outfit that specializes in hosted Web applications. The company currently has a fairly complete suite of online apps, from the basics of word processor, spreadsheet and presentation tool to more sophisticated stuff like a CRM app, project manager and a notebook app similar to Microsoft's OneNote.

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Google has, of course, received the lion's share of attention in this niche with its Docs and Spreadsheets product. I won't make any comment on how Zoho stacks up with its more notorious rival in terms of feature sets. Vegesna didn't say much about that either, except when he noted that where Google has spent a lot of time integrating assorted acquisitions under a sort of "gApp" rubric, Zoho has been approaching things from another direction, preferring instead to build out the features then draw their suite together later. Based on my tour of both suites, that seems about right. And Zoho is clearly the more publicly ambitious of the two, considering the breadth of its offerings.

Another key consideration is how both relate to businesses. Where Google has gone ahead and launched Google Apps with an available $50-per-user-per-year premium edition aimed at businesses who want some service guarantees, Zoho has yet to offer anything comparable. Vegesna said most of Zoho's user base, as a result, is still largely consumer-based, with 30 percent of it being students and 55 percent living outside the U.S. (where cost and an "anything but Microsoft" attitude are bigger considerations).

I also chatted briefly with Vegesna regarding Zoho's plans to launch offline versions of its suite. One complaint common to productivity users who are interested in such apps is how one's expected to get at them when there's no 'net connection available. Or even when one is just dealing with a slow link from a saturated public access point or a low-end consumer grade connection.

While he said some sort of offline version would be available by the end of the year, he also told me he considers offline versions of hosted Web apps more of a "comfort" offering for users than anything. And, he said, it's just not going to matter in a few years, when connectivity is much closer to ubiquitous.

Google's been wondering about the same issues, since it just last week released Google Gears, a browser extension that will allow Web apps to run offline by executing in a browser with no Internet connectivity and by storing app data on the client machine. Support for the extension is currently available for Firefox 1.5 or higher on OS X, Linux and Windows; or Internet Explorer 6 or higher on Windows. Gears is open source, so developers aren't limited to what Google cares to offer as an offline Web app ... they can build their own. The catch with Gears is, of course, that it's still brand new, there's nothing besides some small demos to indicate how well it will work, and no telling how widely it will be embraced by developers on the whole.

So there's clearly a will to make Web-based apps work. Even Microsoft is headed in that direction. Maybe that will won't come to much, the same way set-top and other "network computers" failed to catch on in the late '90s, but some of the players involved this time around have much more muscle than some of the small companies who were pushing stripped down, almost-thin-clients seven or eight years ago.

And there's an opportunity to turn applications provided over the Web into more of a rental proposition: Pony up each month or year, or download your data before your current rental period expires and go find somewhere else to do your word processing. That's something Microsoft has been moving toward, though some have expressed an obvious psychological barrier against renting software.

Google's premium edition does that, and Zoho's CRM app involves a $12-per-month charge for each user over the third — a pricing scheme tailor-made for the realities of lower-end computing, where a small monthly purchase is easier to swallow than the equivalent license for two or three years worth of upgrades from a traditional application. Microsoft's CRM bundle, for instance, was rolled out at a heavily discounted $995 for a five user license when Windows Server 2003 was introduced. Someone running a five-person small business using Zoho's hosted CRM app would be looking at hitting that expense after about three-and-a-half years ... about the same time its Windows-using peers would be gearing up to upgrade to Windows Server 2007.

This all takes us away from the more prosaic concerns Networking Notes usually addresses: What this box does or what that piece of software will provide in terms of security or management or what have you. But it's going to matter to us soon enough.

Practical networkers are going to find themselves in the marketing cross hairs of companies trying to push the convenience and apparent simplicity of running apps out of a Web browser, but those apps are going to assume a certain baseline in terms of network capability. The choices we make in terms of network infrastructure, even if that seems like an odd term to apply to the typical SOHO or small business user's situation, will matter for a lot more than how quickly or reliably we can download a file or view streaming video from a laptop. They might end up being our lifeline to apps our businesses (or academic careers, or household budgets) depend on.

With 802.11n gear entering its second draft release and all of us considering our upgrade paths, it'll be worth our time to consider whether stuff we think of as "bells and whistles" now won't be key to a smooth-running pipe to all our softwarein the near future.

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