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The four 2021 networking trends

Every CIO needs to know

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By: Partha Narasimhan, CTO of Aruba, a Hewlett Packard Enterprise company

The four 2021 networking trends

We enter 2021 in a very different place from where we were at the start of 2020. The role of networking and more broadly, the IT function, has more often become the hero – and sometimes the scorn – of business continuity and resilience in the face of the pandemic. As CIOs soak up the praise or take their lumps, they must now look to the horizon and define their approach and strategy in a post-pandemic world.

Aruba has identified four major trends that CIOs now face that can make or break an organization’s IT program:

  • The rise of the hybrid workforce and how that will evolve during and after the pandemic
  • The changing role of network security integrated across the fabric of the network
  • Graduating from uptime networking metrics to user satisfaction metrics, examining networking holistically as part of the broader IT technology stack
  • Staying the course in implementing automation in networking operations, despite challenges posed by the LAN, WAN and Cloud

The Hybrid Workforce is Here to Stay

Despite recent advances in vaccines for COVID-19, many roles may still not fully return to the office until late 2021, and in many cases, not at all. After speaking with CIOs from across the country, what is clear is that some amount of remote working will remain after the pandemic exits. That admission portends profound changes for physical office spaces, corporate culture, connectivity, and networking.

Many organizations thought would be temporary remote setups to “flatten the curve” of the pandemic infection rate. They have evolved to form the future’s hybrid workforce, where employees will work from home, the office, or anywhere else wherever they have a secure and reliable connection.

For IT, this crisis has presented enormous challenges, but there is a silver lining. CEOs and their boards of directors recognize the impact that IT can have on the business, including how fast change can be implemented, even under such stressful circumstances.

Now, CEOs and their boards think about lessons learned from the pandemic to make networking, security, and the overall IT programs they oversee more flexible and dynamic. As a result, IT has a seat at the table in pushing forward ambitious forms of digital transformation, even accelerating existing planned transitions, emboldened with how the workforce has adapted to what has become known as the “new normal.” 

Security Must Be Viewed Dynamically – from Endpoints to the Edge, to the Cloud

With the maturation of the cloud and the growth of edge networking with its myriad endpoints – all accelerated by the explosion of IoT – how security is defined and implemented is now becoming part of the network architecture, and not some bolted-on component of the enterprise IT environment.

With the rise of remote working and the hybrid work environment, CSOs and CIOs are clamouring for a connected security approach. When looking at network design principles of the past, security experts essentially started with a policy and then designed a network topology that in turn, satisfied policy, which meant that topology and policy were tightly coupled. That dynamic is drastically changing. Networking solutions have evolved to offer significant degrees of separation, where policy gets programmed when and where it is needed, and only when and where it is needed.

Zero Trust network architecture solutions will remain a core piece of effective security with traditional IT workloads moving out of the Edge into either the cloud or SaaS environment. OT/IoT specific workloads will eventually replace the vacuum left behind at the Edge. Furthermore, with the implementation of 5G, the networking architecture must contend with multi-access edge compute (MEC) workloads – both private and public – all the more requiring dynamic approaches to the security policy that must evolve beyond the user-centric workflows that Zero Trust is primarily optimized for today.

End-User Satisfaction is King

Key IT metrics are also evolving. It’s no longer sufficient to keep the network infrastructure up and running. The metric du jour is user satisfaction which, from the CIO standpoint, is tied to employee productivity that can ultimately impact business profitability.

Networking and security teams are now focused on dynamic experiences that end-users want and expect with the services and applications they choose to use for improved productivity. Instead of asking just what kind of devices connect to the network, they must also focus on maintaining flexibility and agility while minimizing risk. The goal of network control goes hand-in-hand with business agility. By applying the appropriate security measures, CIOs can better facilitate this increasingly dynamic IT environment.

Ultimately, CIOs want insights beyond the network itself and into availability and performance applications that the users and business leaders care about. They are not as interested in how esoteric aspects of the network are performing, but rather, they’re more concerned about whether a specific user had a poor Zoom experience.

Staying the Course on Automation in Network Operations

Tied to understanding the needs and experience of end-users is the maturation of network automation. But automation progress is not equal across the entire networking paradigm. In the data centre, which is a more controlled environment than the WAN or LAN, adoption is farther along. Changes in a data centre are driven mostly in a naturally hierarchical structure and are thus easier to understand and manage through automation scripts.

The Edge (both LAN and WAN), on the other hand, is a more chaotic environment because changes are triggered by factors that are not totally within IT’s control – namely human and device behaviour patterns that are constantly changing. There is a big need for leveraging AI and machine learning models to sense changes as soon as they occur and respond to the ones that seem persistent, even if for a short period of time. The maturity of deployed solutions that provide this learning component of automation at the Edge will improve significantly in 2021. There will also be significant progress in combining these with APIs and other automation tools to deliver on the promised efficiencies and insights that IT leaders crave.

The pandemic has also heightened the interest in networking automation at the Edge among CIOs and IT leaders. According to a recent survey of 2,400 IT decision-makers worldwide, 35% plan to increase their AI-based networking investment, as they seek more agile, automated infrastructures for hybrid work environments. 

Making 2021 a Success

In 2020, businesses and the economy were rescued by a raft of communication technologies developed over the past 40 years, ranging from security, cloud connectivity, to managed and supported applications over the network. Now in 2021, the four trends outlined here can provide CIOs and IT leaders with the tools to be better equipped for navigating the unpredictability of today and beyond. They empower IT leaders from the top down to strategically position IT as the crucial function businesses need to successfully manoeuvre whatever the future holds, from pandemics to accelerating shifts in work culture trends and environments.

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