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What exactly is a Network Appliance?

Network appliance

By Richard Arneson

We work in an industry rife with nomenclature issues. For instance, Hybrid IT is often used interchangeably with Hybrid Cloud―it shouldn’t, they’re different. They were even referred to as such in an “also known as” manner within a beautiful, 4-color brochure produced by one of the leading equipment vendors in the IT industry. I’ve seen hyperconverged substituted for converged, SAN confused with NAS, SDN and SD-WAN listed as equivalents. The list is seemingly endless.
The good news? Getting the answer is pretty easy, and only a few clicks away. Yes, Google is, for most, the answer to getting correct answers. Ask it a question, then read through the spate of corresponding articles from reputable sources, and you can generally deduce the right answer. When ninety-eight (38) answers say it’s A, and one (1) claims it’s B―it’s probably A.

When does “it” become an Appliance?

Sitting in a non-company presentation recently, I heard the word appliance used several times, and, even though I’ve been in the IT and telecommunications industry for years, I realized I didn’t technically know what appliance meant, how it was different than other networking equipment. I turned to the person seated at my left and asked, “What’s the difference between an appliance and a piece of networking equipment, be it a router, server, etc.?” The answer he provided offered little help. As an attempt to hide my dissatisfaction, I quietly whispered the same question to an engineer on my right. His answer could be only slightly construed as similar to the first response―slightly. In fact, the only true commonality between the answers came in the form of two (2) words―single function. Clear as Mississippi mud pie, right? During a break, I asked the question of several in attendance, and got answers that ran a mile wide and an inch deep, but provided, essentially, little information, possibly less than before.
I turned to Google, of course. But I discovered something I didn’t believe was possible―there was literally no definition or information I could find that even attempted to distinguish what, exactly, makes for a network appliance. According to “my history” in Google Chrome, I typed in over thirty (30) variations of the same question. Nothing. Frustrating. But I had something better than Google.

It works with governmental elections

GDT has over two-hundred (200) solutions architects and engineers, all talented and tenured, and have earned, collectively, well over one thousand (1,000) of the industry’s highest certifications. Why not poll some of the industry’s best and brightest with the question,” What differentiates an ‘appliance’ from other networking equipment?”
They weren’t allowed to reply “TO ALL” in the hopes that others’ answers wouldn’t influence theirs. Also, they couldn’t Google the question, or any derivative thereof, which, based on my experience, wouldn’t have helped anyway.

Drum roll, please

Responses came pouring in, even though it was after 5 PM on a Friday afternoon. So in lieu of posting well over one hundred (100) responses, I decided to craft, based on those responses (one was even a haiku), a definition of a network appliance related to how it’s differentiated from a non-appliance. Here goes…
A network appliance is different than a non-appliance because it comes pre-configured and is built with a specific purpose in mind.
And because I’m a fan of analogies, here’s one I received:
“You can make toast in the oven, but you’ve got a toaster, a device that is specifically made for making toast. Because it’s designed for a narrow problem set, the toaster is smaller than the oven, more energy efficient, easier to operate, and cheaper. An appliance is something that is able to be better than a general-purpose tool because it does less.”
And for you Haiku fans:
“It is a server
Or a virtual machine
That runs services”
There it is―a definition, an analogy, even a Haiku. Now don’t get me started on the word device.

Turn, like I did, to the experts

GDT’s team of solutions architects and engineers maintain the highest certification levels in the industry. They’ve crafted, installed and currently manage the networks and security needs of some of the largest enterprises and service providers in the world. They can be reached at SolutionsArchitects@gdt.com or at Engineering@gdt.com. Great folks; they’d love to hear from you.

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