The Year Ahead in Enterprise Networking

It doesn’t take a genius to figure out what the major development in enterprise infrastructure will be in 2013 (hint: it rhymes with oftware efined etworking). However, exactly how this last stage of virtualization will play out is still something of a mystery.

Will the enterprise dive right in to Software Defined Networking (SDN) to capitalize on the scalability and flexibility benefits of separating the control and data planes of their traditional hierarchical networks? Or will it be a more nuanced conversion, driven by a healthy respect of the profound changes that are taking place and the realization that the likelihood of unintended negative consequences is quite high?

IDC, for one, is expecting big things from SDN, predicting the market will expand from $360 million today to $3.7 billion by 2016, comprising a range of network infrastructure, application and control plan solutions, as well as related professional services. The company says SDN is sitting right in the middle of a “perfect storm” of market and technology developments, such as the growth of cloud services and applications, infrastructure convergence and the need to support more advanced virtual, cloud and mobile platforms. As well, the enterprise industry has gathered extensive experience with virtual server environments, which should go a long way toward streamlining the transition to virtual networking.

There is also the fact that venture capital is starting to shift away from consumer-oriented platforms like social networking and e-commerce toward enterprise needs like SDN. After spectacular flameouts from Facebook and Groupon, top investors are starting to see the relative stability of business-class spending patterns as a welcome respite from the fad-driven consumer space. It’s no secret, after all, that enterprises are scrambling to accommodate the onrush of Big Data and are increasingly turning to advanced cloud and virtual technologies to blunt the need for additional hardware.

All of this is dramatically altering the way IT and end users interact with each other, according to Acronis Senior VP Scott Crenshaw. In short, IT is becoming invisible to the knowledge workforce as infrastructure becomes a fungible commodity within the broader data environment. In an age when users can already create their own application environments to suit their needs, it won’t be long before the entire process is fully automated and applications themselves can simply create their own mini ecosystems using whatever virtual and cloud resources are at hand. No longer will performance be limited to what can be accomplished within the confines of hardware and software — users will simply launch their desired app, and infrastructure is compiled according to need.

And all of this is brought to you through improved networking, according to Ciena Corp.’s Jim Morin. As the cloud gains in stature in enterprise environments, functions like processor speed and storage capacity become less important because they will be available in abundance. But the means to move data from place to place, often over great distances, will remain a top enterprise priority because it will allow data to be used more productively. And again, the more this can be done in software rather than through new hardware deployments, the easier it will be for the enterprise — both in terms of operational efficiency and the budget.

The year ahead, then, will be an interesting one for networking professionals. True virtualization will engender broad new capabilities, but it will also require new skillsets and a radically new worldview as to how network environments are to be provisioned, maintained and governed.

If past is prologue, not every development will be for the better. But it seems likely that in a virtual world, bad ideas can be implemented, tested and disregarded much more efficiently and with far less disruption to working environments than in the past.

And ultimately, the enterprise will come to realize that it will rely on network infrastructure, and the people who run them, more than ever.

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