The Network Upgrade Debate: Hardware Vs Software

Coke vs Pepsi. Beatles vs Elvis. Boxers vs briefs. Like many great debates, there’s not always a clear winner when it comes to choosing hardware or software to upgrade your network. While software certainly has major advantages, the choice will largely depend on your needs, your goals and the current state of your network.

Before we can debate their merits, let’s define what we mean by hardware and software. When we talk about upgrading networks with hardware, we talk about adding physical distribution point infrastructure, while software utilizes peering to make endpoints also function as distribution points.

If we’re comparing hardware and software in a vaccum, software wins without question. That’s because hardware is generally more costly, both in the hardware cost itself and IT time installing and maintaining machines. Installing hardware also takes more time to spec, order, receive, install and service. When you think about a network that requires thousands of new distribution points you can see how this would take an IT team months to deploy, keeping them from higher-value IT tasks.

Meanwhile, using software to upgrade your network typically doesn’t require additional overhead. In fact, it can be deployed and managed across your entire network from a single workstation. This makes it simple to centralize control in one location with one IT team, instead of requiring multiple teams to manage the network across multiple global locations.

Because it doesn’t require additional hardware, you end up saving a significant amount of money in new servers, not to mention all the IT time involved in setup and maintenance. Because software can take advantage of the cloud and automation, it will run and self-optimize without the need for IT to manage the process.

In addition, software can be deployed in a manner of days, instead of the weeks or months it takes to deploy hardware. And when it comes time to expand the network again down the road, software makes scaling as simple as pushing a button.

So software wins, right? Usually, but it does depend on your specific scenario. Let’s take a look at a couple of examples.

In the first example, an enterprise is considering the purchase of 7,400 physical servers to serve as dedicated distribution points. When factoring in the cost of hardware, server operating systems and labor, it would cost the company about $1,100 per machine, or about $8.2 million. Meanwhile, peering software could be deployed to their 380,000 existing endpoints at a cost of $10 per endpoint, or $3.8 million. Not only would it save the company $4.4 million, it would be easier to deploy, maintain and scale.

But there are some scenarios where hardware might make more sense. In our second example, an enterprise had already deployed a network of physical servers but was using virtualization to run multiple types of services on a single physical host, including content distribution, mainframe terminal relays, a reporting application, and a file and print server. While software can displace the content distribution function, the other three virtual servers would still be required. In this case, hardware might win, even when we consider the heavier operational overhead. Similarly, if you’ve made a relatively recent investment in hardware and need to scale your network it may make more sense to add more distribution points than to shift to software. In addition, geographic distribution can be a factor; it is far easier to serve 10K employees from a single distribution point in one building than it is to serve 10K employees using 100 distribution points scattered around the globe.

However, even then there are service issues that lean in software’s favor. For example, while there may be a scenario where hardware is cheaper, software can dynamically adjust to network changes so you can push content at any time of the day instead of only during maintenance windows during off hours, getting content to endpoints faster and with less hassle. It’s the equivalent of getting a direct flight to a city across the country instead of driving; both will get you there, but the benefits of one often outweighs the cheaper cost of the other.  

When weighing software versus hardware, keep the following questions in mind to determine which solution provides the best cost, value, performance and scalability for your organization:

  • How many distributions points does it take to serve the entire enterprise?
  • Are your distributions points located at the branch, or do they rely on WAN traffic to reach remote offices?
  • What are the operational overhead costs (global IT staff, maintenance, licensing, depreciation, etc)?
  • Are you dealing with an aging population of servers that may lack performance/scale?
  • Are you faced with an impending large hardware purchase or a IT strategy that may cap your spend?

When it comes to upgrading your network, it’s good to explore both hardware and software. However, as companies continue to undergo digital transformation the case is tipping more and more in the favor of the software solution.

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