The spectrum and potential of advanced networking

ADVANCED networking is the unsung hero of our digital future, offering a continuum of connectivity that can drive the development of new products and services or transform inefficient operating models. Increasingly, digital transformation through data- and networking-dependent technologies such as cognitive, IoT, blockchain, and advanced analytics are fueling adoption of connectivity advances. Next-generation technologies and techniques such as 5G, low Earth orbit satellites, mesh networks, edge computing, and ultra-broadband solutions promise order-of-magnitude improvements that will support reliable, high-performance communication capabilities; software-defined networking and network function virtualization help companies manage evolving connectivity options. In the coming months, expect to see companies across sectors and geographies take advantage of advanced connectivity to configure and operate tomorrow’s enterprise networks.

Traditionally, networking has lived in the shadow of high-profile disruptive enterprise technologies such as digital experiences, cognitive, and cloud that capture imaginations and headlines. Networking, though mission critical, is not particularly sexy. This is about to change. Increasingly, technology forces dependent on networking are transforming enterprise architecture. For example, proliferating mobile devices, sensors, serverless computing, exploding volumes of shared data, and automation all require advanced connectivity and differentiated networking. Indeed, advanced connectivity is fast becoming a linchpin of digital business. In TechTarget’s most recent IT Priorities Survey, 44 percent of respondents cited upgrading their networking foundations as a top priority for the coming year. Similarly, a 2018 survey of IT leaders by Interop ITX and InformationWeek found that companies are increasingly focused on adding bandwidth, exploring ways to modernize their networks with software, and expanding their networking capabilities. Going forward, one of the CIO’s primary responsibilities will be getting data from where it is collected, to where it is analyzed, to where it is needed to drive real-time decisions and automated operations—at scale and at speed, in a data center, in the cloud, or, increasingly, on the edge at the point where business occurs and missions are realized. As such, building and maintaining the networking capabilities required to meet this responsibility is a growing CIO priority. As part of the growing connectivity of tomorrowtrend, CIOs have begun developing connectivity strategies that support their broader digital agendas. They are exploring opportunities to use software-defined networking (SDN), network function virtualization (NFV), and network slicing to build controllable, secure, distributed networks that feature different kinds of devices and have the ability to utilize distributed computing power. Likewise, they are defining the roles that evolving access mechanisms such as 5G and satellites will play in their connectivity strategies. And importantly, CIOs are learning ways to maintain control over these networking components without increasing the cost of ownership. Networking models featuring some or all of these components can transform an organization’s agility, efficiency, and competitiveness—but only to the extent that they can reliably deliver connectivity, security, and performance seamlessly to end users and applications. Often, the expectation behind every digital experience is the infinite availability and omnipresence of seamless network connectivity. And when that expectation cannot be met, the experience—and the strategy behind it—fail. The orders-of-magnitude performance boost that 5G promises doesn’t happen very often. Very soon, low-orbit satellite-based connectivity and mesh networks will deliver 5G capabilities to locations that currently have only limited coverage. During the next 18 to 24 months, expect to see more companies embrace the connectivity of tomorrow trend by exploring how a host of advanced networking capabilities can be used to enhance products, services, and enterprise architectures. From a strategy perspective if you are in an industry that can benefit from greater bandwidth and more digital technology capabilities in your stores, warehouses, field operations, or across your global networks, what does this trend mean for your company’s future? How will you build your connectivity of tomorrow?

Connectivity building blocks

Advanced connectivity raises the bar on network flexibility, making it possible to configure networks to fit different types of performance and availability requirements. Network management frameworks are increasingly allowing companies to dynamically configure and control network resources through software. As they develop advanced networking strategies, CIOs should start by examining how the following core capabilities may be able to advance their digital transformation agendas. The latest advanced connectivity building blocks include:
  • 5G. The fifth generation of cellular wireless technology represents a sweeping change, far beyond being just another new wireless interface for smartphones. It offers greater speed, lower latency, and—importantly—the ability to connect massive numbers of sensors and smart devices within a network. How? By breaking technology constraints. With 5G, many networking protocols can coexist to meet device and application specific requirements, and can be managed seamlessly. In connectivity of tomorrow, billions of connected devices will be communicating directly as machine-to-machine, and addition or subtraction of connected devices will be possible at unprecedented scale. In this environment, the ability to manage large volumes of connected devices and the information being exchanged between them will be critical. 5G acts as a unifying technology, bringing together all the networking capabilities needed to manage the information flow and density at scale. The protocol also lowers power requirements for base communication, extending sensor battery life and viability of many IoT potential use cases.
  • The 5G revolution is well underway with telecom operators. Deloitte predicts that 2019 will be the year in which 5G networks arrive in scale. There were 72 operators testing 5G in 2018, and by the end of 2019 we expect 25 operators will have launched 5G service in at least part of their territory (usually cities). An additional 26 operators could launch in 2020, more than doubling the total. In addition, with regulatory approval for spectrum use, enterprises can deploy private local area networks with 5G technology. In some industrial settings such as factory floors, 5G can replace local area networking over Wi-Fi, significantly increasing the network’s reliability, performance, and predictability. This 5G capability could be used to untether robots from fixed locations or to enable remote control of robots, thereby providing higher levels of flexibility in operations.
  • Low Earth orbit satellites. Companies have long used large, high-altitude, geostationary satellites to connect remote areas to the outside world. These satellites have served a purpose, but they lag fiber and cable-based internet in terms of reliability and responsiveness and have potentially high cost profiles. In what some have characterized as a “new space race,” SpaceX, OneWeb, and other organizations are developing small, low Earth orbit satellites that, deployed in clusters, may be able to deliver high-performance broadband anywhere on earth. In addition to providing access to rural or isolated communities, low-orbit satellites could become essential networking infrastructure tools for industries operating in remote areas such as energy, mining, transportation, and even finance.
To monitor and manage evolving connectivity options that are increasingly varied, CIOs are virtualizing parts of the connectivity stack using the following network management techniques:
  • Software-defined networking. SDN is a software layer that sits atop a physical network composed of networking appliances such as switches and routers. Long restricted primarily to use within the data center, the technology is now being extended for wide area networking (SD-WAN) to connect data centers, branch banks, stores, or other multilocation applications. These physical appliances still forward data packets, but SDN software controls where these packets get forwarded. In the SDN model, software can centrally program and manage a network, potentially boosting flexibility.
  • Network function virtualization. NFV replaces network functions such as routing, switching, encryption, firewalling, WAN acceleration, and load balancing provided by dedicated physical network appliances with virtualized software. These virtual network functions appear and behave like their physical counterparts without the need for dedicated, specialized hardware. NFV deployments typically use commodity servers. Through virtualization, these network services can scale horizontally or vertically on demand. With NFV, services such as multimedia voice, evolved packet core routing, and radio access networking can now be operated completely in a cloud environment using low-cost, general-purpose computing platforms as network infrastructure.
SDN and NFV are complementary. SDN controls network functions centrally; it doesn’t matter whether the network functions are provided by dedicated hardware appliances or virtualized network functions.

What does this mean for IT?

CIOs can use these advanced connectivity building blocks together with existing local area networking technologies like Ethernet, and Wi-Fi, and wide-area capabilities such as Gigabit broadband and 4G LTE to create configurable networks that can be tailored to fit a variety of enterprise needs (see figure 1). Similar to how enterprises utilize elastic cloud computing infrastructure, with SDN and NFV they will be able to spin up, tear down, and optimize network capabilities on demand to fit specific application or end-user requirements. As you begin developing your connectivity of tomorrow strategy, consider the following demand and supply factors:
  • Growing demand for real-time computation and low latency at the end device. Applications such as industrial automation, virtual reality, and autonomous decision-making will require high computation capabilities with very low latency (round-trip time from the device to the cloud and back). In these situations, data processing can be partitioned with a portion executed in a “mini cloud” as close as possible to the device. The remaining data-processing functions can be distributed among cloud service providers or corporate data centers. This mini cloud is also known as edge computing—a useful model in situations where low latency connectivity to the end device is an essential component. For IoT networks that generate and move massive amounts of data, edge computing is a game-changer. It makes it possible for these IoT devices—many with minimal computing power and low-speed connectivity—to process data at the edge. This model increases efficiencies for both the telecom operator and the enterprise by reducing network backhaul traffic to central repositories.
  • Proliferation of connected devices to monitor and manage. Enabled by 5G, both the volume and variety of connected device types are expected to dramatically increase within an enterprise. These devices are likely to have a range of operating systems, computing, storage, and networking capabilities. For CIOs and their IT teams, new end-point security requirements and challenges are likely to emerge, including prevention of unauthorized devices on the corporate network, security policy management at the device level, and avoiding potential for network storms by rogue devices.
  • IT talent models evolve. As examined in the “Reengineering technology” chapter of Tech Trends 2018, talent models will need to evolve as IT talent upskills and retrains to address the new normal. In the context of advanced connectivity, SDN and NFV expertise is not widely available in all regional and industry talent pools. Likewise, enterprise architects will need to address partitioning of applications between the edge and the cloud/enterprise data centers, while ensuring that data is transported efficiently and securely.