Since the 1960s, enterprise computing networking has made significant leaps and bounds to deliver the unprecedented connectivity we enjoy today. The advancement of network technology has come to define not only how people do business but also conduct their daily lives. The network edge today is dominated by mobile-centric wireless local area networks (LANs), with Wi-Fi and Ethernet still preferred by end users.
Clearly, networking technology continues to evolve aggressively, and it is crucial to understand what lies on the horizon to stay competitive, relevant and connected in an increasingly networked world.
Technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML), the cloud, 5G, edge computing, Internet of Things (IoT), and more continue to play an increasingly influential role in the future of networking. Some of the expected outcomes of the impact of these technologies, including factors such as higher IT network operation costs and remote and hybrid work, are explored below.
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The Autonomous Network
Network automation promises to replace most of the tedious tasks that are manually carried out by network engineers. This enables these professionals to dedicate more of their time and effort to improve the overall efficiency of their teams and organizations as a whole.
However, an autonomous network is meant to go well beyond simple automation capabilities and advance the capabilities introduced by software-defined networks to ultimately create a network that is self-operating. An autonomous network seeks to connect human beings to technology to improve their experiences. It incorporates advanced artificial intelligence. Such a network is characterized by agility, adaptiveness, and security with a software-defined approach that also incorporates human intelligence.
The demand for autonomous networks is set to rise as manual approaches continue to become more expensive, IT network operation costs continue to rise, and the growth of data and devices continues to outpace IT capabilities.
Artificial Intelligence for Better Network Management
Within the context of network management, artificial intelligence increasingly plays a part in lowering costs and reducing time-to-repair. Artificial intelligence can be leveraged to identify network issues and assist teams to remediate them, preferably even before end users know they exist. AI can also provide assessments of the impact of network metrics such as latency, packet loss, and jitter on user experience.
Network teams can also enjoy insights into the health of gateways, such as central processing unit (CPU) and memory utilization levels. AI and machine learning will offer increasingly refined predictive analytics capabilities to enable these teams to optimize the efficiency of their networks. Machine learning models will also continue improving with the advancement of network technology to offer predictive models of unprecedented accuracy, thus making predictive analytics a key network management tool.
Additionally, artificial intelligence provides a way for organizations using work-from-home models to manage the networks as well as the productivity of remote workers through monitoring and analytics. Such use cases will continue to raise the demand for AI-enabled networking products.
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Network as a Service and Secure Access Service Edge
Connectivity methods such as Multiprotocol Label Switching (MPLS) hinder network elasticity, as they introduce difficulty in adapting to changes like accommodating remote workforces. MPLS wide area networks (WANs) struggle to fit into today’s cloud era. Scaling capacity is also an issue with MPLS, as MPLS WANs can lock customers into multi-year contracts.
There is a need for approaches that enable organizations to easily scale up or scale down capacity without delay. There is also a growing need for organizations to secure and support their workforces from any location globally.
Network as a service (NaaS) and secure access service edge (SASE) help organizations modernize their networks. NaaS solutions involve leasing cloud-delivered networking functions from a provider to sidestep the need to maintain their own network infrastructure. Legacy tools such as MPLS and VPNs are also replaced by NaaS. Various NaaS solutions have integrated security functions like distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) protection and network firewalls.
Comparably, SASE solutions are characterized by the combination of network security capabilities and software-defined networking in a unified platform. This makes NaaS fundamental to SASE, as some SASE solutions have NaaS as their foundation for connectivity. NaaS and SASE adoption will continue to grow since they enable network elasticity by embracing built-in protection and enabling cloud-ready networks.
Network Convergence, the Cloud, and Managed Service Providers
Before network convergence, the network landscape was defined by heterogeneous network infrastructures, protocols, and hardware to connect to servers. Today, end users need the highest quality of service, experience, and robustness. At the same time, the IT teams that serve those end users need different standards to be compatible, costs to be manageable, and for security upgrades to be simpler.
The evolution of network convergence will make it easier for IT administrators to enforce network management and to make user experience more predictable while enabling more integration of different products and vendors.
A key driver for network convergence is the ability to eliminate the complexity of networks and make networks easy to operate and maintain. WANs are increasingly converging to yield simpler networks. This will not only result in constantly improving user experience but also improving the experience of how IT teams interact with networks and their tools.
The cloud has a starring role to play in all this. The flexibility, reliability, resilience, and extensibility required can only be provided by the cloud. Network management functions, analytics, and more will continue to reside in the cloud. As a result, managed service providers stand to play a much greater role, as offsetting network management functions to a third party will continue to deliver more convenience and flexibility, particularly for small and midsize businesses.
Also see: 9 Ways AI Can Help Improve Cloud Management
As 5G rollouts by carriers continue, it is common to find many businesses still operating under 4G/LTE until these rollouts are complete. However, the rise in remote work today means that the network bandwidth and speed requirements continue to rise.
Home broadband needs, greatly boosted by the boom in remote work, ensure the demand for fixed 5G to the home will skyrocket with time. Fixed 5G will continue to offer a solution to separating work systems from home systems, making it attractive to organizations with a work-from-home culture. It will also provide internet to employees working from home who lacked previous broadband access.
5G will increasingly deliver new network models that will change how operators approach incremental enhancement and modernization for their networks. The flexibility of 5G networks will drive the need for more open-source or open-hardware functionality since it does not follow a one-size-fits-all service approach. 5G’s combination with edge computing will continue to improve IoT adoption in enterprise networks and boost organizations’ digital transformation initiatives.
The increase in the number of network devices, skyrocketing global IP traffic in addition to a vast range of technologies today that are heavily dependent on Wi-Fi, yield compounding bandwidth challenges. The adoption of IoT, augmented reality, virtual reality, 4K video, and 5G networks mean that outstanding volumes of traffic are offloaded to Wi-Fi. Factoring in hybrid work as the new normal means fewer employees are tethered to traditional centralized workstations.
As a result of these bandwidth challenges, Wi-Fi has needed to evolve to address them. The result of this evolution is Wi-Fi 6 (802.11ac wireless technology). The transition to Wi-Fi 6 will continue to prove attractive, as it uses existing bandwidth more efficiently through orthogonal frequency-division multiple access. It also promises new modulation techniques to yield greater throughput and is expected to be the first wireless standard that reliably breaks the gigabit barrier outside of ideal conditions.
The consumer aspect of Wi-Fi 6, greatly influenced by the shift to working from home, will continue to drive up demand for the technology.