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Federation Network Administration: Less is More

October 30, 2011

In the last post (Thousands of parts flying in close formation), we discussed the incredible business benefits of unified communications (UC) federation for a value chain of business partners. The more complex the value chain, the more business value there is in UC federation. However, the downside of large-scale federation is the network administration burden.

To understand this problem, let’s first take a look at a federation network topology. A federation connection is a 1-to-1 link in each direction for each member of the network. The simple case is if company A federates with company B, then there would be a network administrator at each end that would have to set up and manage the connection; so far, so good. Now add company C to A and B in a triangle, and now there are 6 connections to manage – 1 in each direction for each of the 3 companies. The number of connections (assuming all companies connect to each other, i.e. a ‘full mesh network’) is expressed mathematically as n * (n – 1). So with the latter example: 3 * 2 = 6. Now think about a full-mesh network of 100 nodes: 100 * 99 = 9,900 federation connections and you start to build a picture of a significant network administration burden.

It is probably fair to argue that there are few complete full mesh networks in reality, and that the burden of managing this network would be spread between (at least) 100 network administrators. Some firms may have only 1 or 2 major business partners that merit a federation connection: a component supplier to Boeing is probably a good example. For these firms, the cost of administration of the single federation link is very low. However, for Boeing the cost is very high, because they are at the center of a very large ‘hub and spoke’ network. They have thousands of business partners and each federation connection has to be managed. It is still early days in the UC federation era, but there are already companies that have a large ecosystem of partners and manage over 500 federation connections.

Whether your firm’s value chain looks like a ‘hub and spoke network’ or a ‘full mesh network’, there is a simple resolution. All full mesh networks can be converted to hub and spoke networks by placing a single routing node in the middle to which every firm maintains a single connection. A hub and spoke network is a tried and tested optimization of a full mesh network in everything from logistics and distribution networks (e.g. Fedex), all forms of transportation (bus routes, highway placement, airports, etc.) and even computer data networks at layer 2/3. If your company happens to be the hub in a hub and spoke network, the management of the hub can be outsourced.

To implement this in a UC federation network, there would have to be a network service provider that took a single federation connection from a company network and appropriately routed all traffic from that company to its value chain partners. That service provider would take care of the administration of the network connections, the security aspect (i.e. excluding undesirable elements like spammers) and would even intermediate between non-interoperable systems. A service provider that did all this would probably be a lot like NextPlane.

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