From incorporating cloud services to keeping the hybrid workforce humming, network executives and architects face myriad challenges every day.
The main goals of large organisations are to prioritise those challenges, adjust the network architecture to handle widely distributed applications, services and users, and keep corporate resources secure, according to Neil Anderson, area vice president with World Wide Technology, a $14.5 billion global technology services provider.
The pandemic exposed weaknesses in the ability of traditional network architectures to support distributed employees at scale, and while organisations managed through the crisis with quick-fix solutions like remote access VPN, it's become clear that fundamental changes to the architecture are needed for long-term success, Anderson stated.
With that in mind, WWT recently issued a report that details what it says should be businesses' core networking priorities.
Network automation initiatives mature
The first of those priorities is automation.
“What’s happening with automation is that we're moving into a new phase of SDN," Anderson said. "The first phase was kind of proprietary, in that Cisco works with Cisco, Aruba works with Aruba, for example. And I think customers experimented with that. They certainly took advantage of the benefits SDN offers, including programmability.”
Now, WWT said customers are beginning to build their own automation platforms on top of the vendor platforms, and they're most likely multi-vendor environments – taking advantage of platforms such as Ansible from Red Hat and HashiCorp to build their own runtime engines and their own playbooks on top of those systems, Anderson said.
“We've seen automation business really picking up with our largest customers, where they're engaging us to teach them to accelerate their automation capabilities," he added.
Gaining automation skills is imperative because, while the technology can be implemented to help organisations short on IT resources, it’s hard to find automation people who already have the skills to build it, Anderson said.
WWT offers courses including a mentorship program to up-skill existing IT staff who are ready to learn programmability skills.
“You’ve got to learn software, configuration management, APIs, programmability. It's not a light task, but organisations should use structured training and mentoring programs to uplift their existing teams,” Anderson said.
Artificial intelligence (AI) is another area that will require skills development by networking pros.
“There are a lot of parallels with what's going on right now in programmability that are going to have to occur if you really want to adopt AI,” Anderson said. “It's going to take brand new skill sets around data and manipulation and AI engines, and there's a lot of new terminology, and there is a plethora of different toolsets that most people aren't even aware of, let alone know how to use right."
SASE, SSE and SD-WAN
Network complexity is another challenge facing enterprises today. Traditional private data centre networks were designed for high-performance delivery of on-premises applications. However, the number of SaaS and public-cloud applications has risen dramatically, and services for these applications are often spread across on-premises data centres and hosting facilities.
SASE, a term Gartner coined in 2019, describes a single, scalable, cloud-based platform that combines five major security and networking technologies: cloud-access security broker (CASB), secure web gateway, zero-trust network access (ZTNA), integrated SD-WAN, and firewall as a service. More focused on security, SSE is SASE minus the SD-WAN; it bundles CASB, secure web gateway, and ZTNA.
“While most application usage has evolved toward public cloud and SaaS, many connectivity architectures have not. SD-WAN provides a scalable and programmable way to build connectivity between users at branch offices and campus sites and the cloud-based workloads they're accessing,” the WWT report stated.
“Secure access service edge (SASE), or specifically the SSE half of the architecture, provides security and policy enforcement right at the cloud edge. With many employees returning to the office and many remaining remote, networking leaders should assess implementation of both SD-WAN and SASE/SSE."
Transforming edge-to-cloud architecture starts with learning more about current traffic flows, according to WWT. Networking leaders need to get a handle on where their applications are running today and where they are likely to be running in the future.
When applications are plotted this way, it's easy to visualise the suboptimal paths traffic flows must take to reach applications, as well as what design changes can yield the biggest business impact, the WWT report stated.
“There are lots of applications consuming SaaS, public cloud workloads, private cloud workloads, off-premises workloads, and organisations have to figure out how they’re going to connect users to those workloads," Anderson added.
"You can't backhaul any more to your private data centre, and then go out through your nice tidy DMZ to the internet. That is just a terrible experience for most people."
WWT offers labs that let customers see how a variety of the different components from multivendor SD-WAN offerings interact and how customers can effectively set up different configurations, Anderson said.
5G and WiFi 6
WWT suggests businesses look into private 5G as an alternative networking option for IoT, field area networks, and industrial and warehouse environments.
“Since the opening of the CBRS spectrum, private 5G is definitely an option for some users, and we are seeing interest in public sector space, manufacturing, utilities, energy, even some healthcare operations taking a serious look at it,” Anderson said.
Enterprises that are considering private LTE and 5G wireless infrastructure should start by identifying what parts of the business could most benefit from a dedicated cellular network, WWT stated, and address connection challenges.
“Consider the types of devices and gateways supported by private LTE on CBRS. User equipment will need to support specialised LTE and 5G frequency band, like the 3.5 GHz CBRS band. Newer devices often do, however older ones might not,” WWT stated.
WiFi 6 and 6E technology are also on WWT’s priority list. Bandwidth demands and device mobility will require networking leaders to take a fresh look at their RF planning, WWT stated.
Wi-Fi operators will need to consider the number of users, which applications are now baseline, and how to most effectively apply the tri-band channel plan (2.4GHz, 5GHz and 6GHz band) to give employees the best experience. This may mean installing more APs than in traditional designs, WWT stated.