The times, they are changing – even for the traditional hub and spoke models of networking. These changes come with serious repercussions: control structures change; companies democratise; security is threatened; efficiency is increased; and the need for control grows exponentially. 

How did this change happen? Why is the hub and spoke model shifting? Why did it exist in the first place? And perhaps most importantly, what is next?

Understanding the traditional hub and spoke model

Let’s go back to the 1990s. IT directors decided around this time to reduce the number of servers by consolidating everything into main datacentres. This meant placing information, organisation and consultation in centralised offices.

The rationale was basic enough: consolidation ‘fixed’ a lot of the issues caused by having many servers across various branch offices, such as the expensive need for extensive hardware and software, and the overall complexity of unifying many separate bodies. This complexity stemmed from local offices, based all over the world, making local decisions, not necessarily consulting the central office.

Now how did consolidation ‘solve’ these problems? Through two techniques: virtualisation and WAN optimisation. Virtualisation allowed companies to build datacentres that were flexible, that were at a reasonable cost, and that were fairly simple to maintain.

WAN optimisation enabled companies to have remote servers without impacting the user experience too much. These companies were able to control what applications flowed across which networks, thus prioritising business-critical applications.

How the hub and spoke model is changing

Having been successful for the past 10+ years, the ‘hub and spoke’ way of doing things works from a variety of standpoints. As a result, it’s not going to disappear anytime soon. It is, however, going to become increasingly less important. The past five years have given testament to this fact.

Recently, unified communications and cloud computing have changed how companies network. Unified communications has allowed companies to communicate through text, voice, and video globally, across all companies, via a global network. This means international, company-wide conversations can happen through one system and one network.

As a result, communication has begun to shift away from the ‘spoke-to-hub’ method and into a ‘spoke-to-spoke’. Companies speak to each other across all levels.

Cloud computing has likewise changed the network structure. Companies are increasingly using more and more applications which are located in the cloud, stored in datacentres all over the world. Branch offices access these applications independently.

In essence, the hub has become decentralised, while the spokes have become increasingly autonomous. Branch offices are able to communicate across a range of levels and are able to use a variety of applications from any number of cloud-based enterprises.

Looking toward the future

This trend will continue to grow. The ‘spoke-to-spoke’ model will rival, and perhaps even eventually surpass, the ‘hub and spoke’ model of networking. Consider some statistics on cloud computing and unified communications: Business Internet traffic will climb at a 20% compound annual growth rate by 2014.

Likewise mobile internet will continue to grow; the number of mobile internet users will grow from 2 billion in 2010 to 2.7 billion in 2015, according to IDC. There will be 15 billion network-connected devices (roughly two per person) by 2015.

As a result, branch offices will be increasingly more independent, able to do via the cloud and unified communications what in the past they had to route through central offices. This will increase flexibility and productivity while decreasing cost.

What the changing model means for IT staff – now and in the future

While the shift towards ‘spoke-to-spoke’ networks brings many benefits, it also brings difficulties. With increased independence comes decreased coherence, a lack of control, a risk of inefficiency, and endless challenges to the networks themselves.

Security threats come from the lack of a central monitor watching what’s happening across the internet. Performance is threatened as many applications compete to run across the network, clogging the system and risking business critical tools. Costs can balloon by users accessing applications without guidance.

IT staff, to put it bluntly, must be prepared to handle these challenges. They must find a way of drawing together all these increasingly autonomous branch offices to create a streamlined company structure. This requires two things: increased awareness, and appropriate technological tools, both which then allow proactive control.

Increased awareness refers to knowing and understanding what actions are happening in the branch offices. As applications flow across the network, IT staff need to monitor what is happening. This means the staff can then prioritise certain applications over others; business-critical applications like CRM can take precedence over non-critical applications, like the latest version of Angry Birds. They must be able to optimise the network.

With this awareness comes a need for appropriate technological tools to act. Traditional methods of traffic control, previously located in the central hub of a company, are too expensive to distribute at individual branch offices. Yet with changing demand has come new technology; recent tools for WAN optimisation have been designed for the local office.

Some are as simple to install as a cable box, but complex enough to allow quality control across many levels of the business. They allow IT staff to manage and prioritise what happens along networks. Small enough for the branch office, these tools still enable considerable centralised control; thus they span the old and new types of networking.

While the times may be changing, not all change is bad. In some cases, such as with the shifting network model, change can allow for improved efficiency, increased flexibility, and overall better business practice.