The term next-generation networking refers to the process of designing network infrastructure with new, advanced technologies. Next-generation networks are flexible, nimble and secure architectures that are easier to manage and help enterprises meet modern business demands. The latest networking technologies have rapidly advanced in recent years, and the idea of next-generation networking and its associated initiatives have changed simultaneously.
Enterprises can build next-generation networks when they implement new technologies and strategies. Here, analysts offer their perspectives on which technologies -- such as Secure Access Service Edge (SASE), network automation, AI, the latest Wi-Fi versions and more -- help modernize network infrastructures.
According to Terry Slattery, an independent consultant, characteristics of next-generation networks include controller-based operations and security, which SASE provides. Slattery said SASE is a best practice for next-generation networking because it combines built-in security functions with software-defined WAN (SD-WAN), an essential tool that simplifies network management.
"It all comes back to those fundamental components and putting together a system that is secure, runs well and allows you to identify problems when they occur," Slattery said.
SD-WAN and SASE are poised to transform how enterprises build traditional VPN services, said Tom Nolle, president of CIMI Corp. SD-WAN is important to networking because it provides a simpler and cost-effective approach, compared with traditional MPLS VPNs. Meanwhile, he added that SASE is becoming the foundation of security planning because it can implement traffic on a secure VPN.
Nolle said the mission of networking has changed from connecting sites to connecting applications. But the networking and security components included in SASE -- such as SD-WAN and security service edge, respectively -- remain the essential pieces that constitute enterprise networking.
Network automation eliminates the menial tasks on which professionals work. But it's also a key characteristic of software-defined networking and next-generation networks with SDN components, Slattery said.
"Automation is a fundamental pillar of next-generation networks because the SDN controllers for both wireless and wired networks use automation in some form or another," he said.
Slattery added that active queue management, a policy used to manage network equipment, is another important component for next-generation networks. With active queue management, network professionals can automate policies to manage network equipment.
Chris Grundemann, managing director at Grundemann Technology Solutions, agreed that automation is an important characteristic of modernized, next-generation networks. Automation, along with orchestration, enables network professionals to manage larger, more complex networks, while increasing agility and improving the reliability of network services, he said.
AI -- and how it integrates with other networking technologies -- is one of the most interesting characteristics of next-generation networks, Slattery said. AI can integrate some of SASE's components -- such as zero trust, cloud access security brokers, software-defined access and other security features -- and gain visibility into the network.
"We'll start to see some of the new AI technologies be applied to analyzing large volumes of data coming from the network as telemetry," Slattery said.
Another use case for AI and machine learning (ML) is automation. Automation is necessary for professionals to increase scale, improve complexity and boost network agility, Grundemann said, adding that advanced AI and ML tools are critical to support these processes.
4. Wi-Fi 6E
Wi-Fi 6E is another top consideration for next-generation networks because it can enable higher data speeds. Unlike previous versions of Wi-Fi technology, Wi-Fi 6E uses the 6 GHz frequency band, in addition to the 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz frequency bands. Wi-Fi 6E routers released in April 2021, but most network endpoint devices have yet to support the capability. Wi-Fi 6E will continue to develop and become an important feature of next-generation networks, Slattery said.
"[Wi-Fi 6E] isn't really there yet. But keep an eye on that space because that's where it needs to go," Slattery said.
Another initiative for Wi-Fi, Slattery said, is that mobile network operators are starting to consider fixed wireless access for network connectivity in rural areas. He added that network operators use long-range Wi-Fi to enable this connectivity.
5. Network observability
Grundemann said observability is an important characteristic of next-generation networks because it provides information related to several other areas of operations. Network observability goes a step further than traditional monitoring. It tends to focus on end-user experience, using data analysis and telemetry to proactively evaluate performance metrics and resolve network issues.
"Observability lets us validate network operations through uncovering unknowns and provides the needed feedback for closed-loop, intent-based automation and orchestration," he said.
6. White box networking
Interest in using white boxes has increased across enterprises, Nolle said. White box networking has several use cases and can benefit enterprises in various ways, due to its commodity hardware, open networking and customization capabilities. For example, white box networking could ease the process of implementing other tools into the network design, such as for network automation.
Despite this, white box networking adoption has stagnated across enterprises. Many are reluctant to switch from legacy networking to white box networking. Even if they were interested, according to Nolle, few large vendors offer white box networking equipment. Experts continue to explore how to improve white box networking adoption because open networking could become an important aspect of modernized networking.
7. Private 5G
Organizations that prefer more control over their network infrastructure can use 5G to build private wireless networks. However, private wireless is a fairly recent development -- the Federal Communications Commission only recently opened wireless spectrum for auction.
Also, interest in private 5G persists, but the technology suits IoT-like applications better than applications used in traditional network devices, Nolle said. Nevertheless, private 5G could take enterprises a step toward network modernization, so businesses should evaluate if private wireless is a worthwhile initiative.
Next-generation networking challenges
One major challenge to modern networking overall is propagation delay, Slattery said. Networks are still limited by the speed of light, and latency across the U.S. averages around 1 millisecond per mile. And, despite the anticipation over 5G, cellular technology could create challenges for modernized networks due to the propagation characteristics in small cells.
"We're going to run into some interesting limitations -- in terms of having to learn how [cellular] works and how to apply it well with millimeter wave technology -- because the propagation characteristics are so limited," Slattery said.
The deployment process is another potential challenge of next-generation networking. Network professionals could struggle to design next-generation networks with existing infrastructures. Grundemann said, because every network is complex and has its own needs, it's difficult for enterprises to find tools that support brownfield networks.
"It's fairly easy to build a truly modern network from scratch in a greenfield deployment," Grundemann said. "Most of the trouble comes from modernizing existing networks with bespoke architectures, on standard device and function configurations, and a lack of automation."
Best practices for next-generation networking
Next-generation networking enables network teams to operate large and complex enterprise networks capable of supporting the business. But, according to Slattery, the biggest incentive for organizations to develop next-generation networks is to keep pace with competition.
"Companies you compete with directly are going to start adopting next-generation networks," he said. "If you don't follow suit, you're going to be at risk, your networks are going to be at a disadvantage, your systems are going to be less stable and you get less productive work out of them."
As organizations transition from legacy infrastructures to next-generation networks, Nolle said enterprises should focus on lowering costs and improving operations. One strategy toward this goal, for example, is to outsource deployment to a third party. Grundemann said third-party organizations can build greenfield networks that support business needs.
If organizations follow this approach, Grundemann said they should adopt observability tools that can glean data from across the network -- including from cloud networks, SASE, network as a service and more -- for comprehensive visibility into all aspects of the environment.