Making a Strategic Plan for the Future of Networking

July 28, 2019

Many enterprise networks are straining under the pressure of massive changes brought on by computing trends that are shifting traditional traffic patterns as well as by digital transformations of the underlying business. Companies are shifting workloads to the cloud, increasing their use of voice and video applications, and adding thousands or even millions of new connections to support IoT devices. All these changes have a severe impact on networks that haven’t yet been re-architected to support the new traffic volumes and patterns and cloud-based applications.

To help organizations plan for and execute the necessary changes to their networking infrastructure, Gartner developed a guide published as the 2019 Strategic Roadmap for Networking. This guide provides recommendations on:

  • Transforming the workforce, skills and culture of the networking organization,
  • Deploying SD-WAN to enable greater network agility, simplicity and performance,
  • Leveraging Wi-Fi and cellular connectivity across the campus network,
  • Implementing automation, orchestration and intent-based networking (IBN) solutions, and
  • Optimizing the vendor sourcing approach.

Network managers are being asked to deliver more services and make changes at an increasing pace, with fewer errors and at a lower cost. Gartner says that network budgets are essentially flat, and organizations need to do more with less. “Areas that will be in focus are reducing reliance on MPLS in favor of internet access, automation, different business models/sourcing options and taking advantage of open standards where possible.”

The Gap between “Future State” and “Current State”

Gartner lays out what it believes the future state of networking should be and compares that to the current state of networking for most enterprises today. The gap between the two states is wide but not insurmountable, thus presenting challenges (and opportunities) in the migration plan:

“Premium products instead of premium people”

Today’s style of networking requires a large staff of people whose skills are focused on keeping the network operating and performing well. Network practitioners have vendor certifications that are focused on a particular vendor silo, such as Cisco, Microsoft or VMware. They are intimately familiar with their silo’s command line interface (CLI). The knowledge is different from product to product and so the people are pigeon-holed in their specialty areas.

In the future state of networking, people will need to have far different kinds of skills and knowledge, such as DevOps development and AI and machine learning. Business acumen will be the premium skill, rather than knowing how to program a router. Any networking migration plan needs to include reskilling the workforce.

“From MPLS to Internet and routers to SD-WAN”

The network of the future will reduce its reliance on MPLS in favor of Internet with SD-WAN. This will increase agility and reduce costs. Gartner recommends that network leaders focus on solutions that simplify the deployment and operation of the network, using capabilities such as zero-touch configuration, orchestration with APIs, business-policy-based configurations, IBN solutions, automation and virtualization. Gartner stresses the importance to “automate wherever possible.”

“Data-center-centric to hybrid cloud”

There is a surge in business initiatives leveraging cloud-based IT delivery. According to Gartner, there is now more traffic to public clouds than to on-premise data centers, more applications delivered as a service than from on-premise data centers, and more sensitive data in clouds than in on-premise data centers. However, public cloud and data center networks are not integrated today, and enterprise WANs are not optimized for hybrid cloud. The two environments are operated today as separate silos, with different tools, products and features. Every organization needs to reevaluate its WAN strategy and re-architect the network to adapt to hybrid cloud computing.

“From manual CLI to automation and APIs”

Too many networking tasks today are performed manually, often by a skilled network engineer interacting with a single network device through a command line interface. This process is expensive and time-consuming, and it doesn’t scale. Enterprises can increase their reach and agility by adopting orchestration and automation tools that will take over many if not most of the manual tasks. External service offerings will be delivered through APIs. These changes mean that network professionals need to develop skills around automation and programming to build and operate the network of the future.

“From vendors as strategic advisors to vendors as suppliers”

According to Gartner, organizations are migrating away from do-it-yourself network management with a capital expenditure mindset to an outsourced model where network services are acquired from managed network service providers in an opex model. “As far as outsource business models, we expect network as a service (NaaS) to gain increasing traction where the overall solution (hardware and software) are optionally offered as subscription services.” Gartner stresses that network organizations should source from network suppliers that meet a specific need at the right cost.

Solving the most common challenges for IT Infrastructure and Operations (I&O) teams

Gartner customers identify their top two challenges, by far, in planning for their future network as “managing technology challenges” and “insufficient skills/resources.” A third leading challenge is “insufficient capacity to absorb more change.”

Obviously, these are not challenges that can be overcome quickly, but Gartner does mention an option that can help enterprises get to their desired future state sooner rather than later: utilizing managed network services such as NaaS. NaaS is a readily available, on-demand answer to three questions I&O leaders must ask themselves:

  • Does the enterprise have the necessary number of resources in the right roles to perform the required functions?
  • Is it more economical to operate in DIY mode with staff, tools and equipment, versus MNS?
  • Is managing the network a strategic need/requirement as a core function, or are there more pressing priorities that need to be managed by the enterprise?

I&O leaders have a responsibility to explore the option of a managed network service to see how it might help them reach the desired state of their future network. Cato Networks stands ready to have that conversation with organizations that want to start that network transformation today.

Dave Greenfield

Dave Greenfield

Dave Greenfield is a veteran of IT industry. He’s spent more than 20 years as an award-winning journalist and independent technology consultant. Today, he serves as a secure networking evangelist for Cato Networks.