2021 networking trends for a post-pandemic enterprise

In 2020, the pandemic threw the best-laid IT plans into chaos. As enterprises find their footing again, here are four network trends defining the second half of 2021.

The COVID-19 crisis supercharged several major 2021 networking trends that appear poised to outlast the pandemic itself.

As enterprises inch cautiously toward normalcy, organizations are pushing ahead with cloud, Secure Access Service Edge (SASE) and zero-trust network access (ZTNA) adoption -- all initiatives that support secure remote and hybrid work. Meanwhile, some groups report that projects they put on hold in early 2020, such as campus LAN upgrades, are also back in play.

"In February or March 2020, every network team went into 'hair-on-fire' mode trying to support large contingents of remote users," said Andrew Lerner, research vice president at Gartner. "It was, 'Let's drop everything and get people connected.'"

That was the case at insurance provider Liberty Mutual, based in Boston, which had to enable remote work for 45,000 global employees almost overnight.

"It required significant network traffic shaping, including VPN, proxy [servers], and internet and MPLS service adjustments," said Rick Belsky, vice president and senior director of technology. Licensing, routing, security and bandwidth needs all changed on a dime, he added.

After establishing baseline connectivity for remote work, many IT teams then spent months troubleshooting application access and plugging security holes. Finally, about a year after the pandemic first forced the U.S. workforce into lockdown, conditions started to stabilize.

"When I look at our clients' questions now, it feels like we're in more of a standard state," Lerner said.

Cloud comes out on top

Even as enterprises regain their footing, some pandemic-fueled network trends continue to define IT planning for the second half of 2021 and beyond. The big winner is indisputably cloud, with Gartner reporting an almost sixfold increase in client interest in cloud networking between May 2020 and May 2021. Cloud is now "much, much, much" more prevalent and central in network planning than it was before COVID-19, Lerner said.

Andrew Lerner, research vice president, Gartner Andrew Lerner

According to research from Enterprise Strategy Group (ESG), a division of TechTarget, 94% of organizations now use SaaS, IaaS or both, and nearly half have a cloud-first strategy -- an 18% increase since 2020. Eighty-five percent of organizations accelerated their cloud adoption plans because of the pandemic, ESG researchers found.

That was true at Mead & Hunt, an architectural and engineering design firm based in Middleton, Wis., with 900 employees and more than 40 offices nationwide. Because architecture, engineering and construction professionals use graphic-intensive applications that rely on high computing power, the firm leaned heavily on cloud to enable remote work.

"Overall, the early attention we paid to cloud adoption was a silver lining," said Mead & Hunt CIO Andy Knauf, adding that they now have 95% of all infrastructure in the cloud and hope to reach 100% soon. Productivity increased measurably after the abrupt shift to all-remote work, according to Knauf, and Mead & Hunt ultimately counted record-high revenues for the year. "We are better off today than we were before the pandemic," he said.

Throughout 2019, Lerner said he fielded calls about which switches or SDN platforms to buy for on-premises data centers. In contrast, common questions now include whether to use transit gateways and how to set up an enterprise network inside AWS.

"The pandemic absolutely removed some residual reticence to invest in cloud," Lerner said. "Before, there was a good percentage of customers that were very happy to do incremental refreshes and deploy things on prem. Now, people are like, 'I want the cloud to be the network delivery model.'"

SASE's star rises

Among WAN trends, software-defined WAN (SD-WAN) was dominant through the end of 2019, according to Lerner. On the heels of the pandemic, Gartner clients still ask about SD-WAN, but now it's often in the same breath as SASE technology.

"We get a lot of calls saying, 'Hey, I'm doing SD-WAN, but I also have a lot of remote users,'" Lerner said. "'Is there a way to manage that together?'"

SASE is a term coined by Gartner for a network security architecture that connects and secures edge devices via a suite of cloud-based services. In a recent survey of more than 1,000 IT and network practitioners, SD-WAN provider Aryaka found nearly a third are already using the SASE model.

Rick Belsky, vice president and senior director of technology, Liberty Mutual InsuranceRick Belsky

At Liberty Mutual, limited site access and third-party provisioning issues slowed down an ongoing SD-WAN expansion during the pandemic, according to Belsky. Those challenges continue today, having started to ease only in the second half of 2021. But the company had already started deploying SASE technology a few years earlier, which helped the team secure its newly remote workforce in 2020. Looking ahead, Belsky said SASE will be important in supporting the company's cloud services and edge computing initiatives.

Todd Ellison, director of networking and security architecture at IT consultancy Veristor Systems Inc., also said he saw many organizations embrace the technology during 2020.

"Even now, as some companies start to return to office settings, the momentum in SASE solutions is not slowing down," he said.

ZTNA is ready for take-off

Before the pandemic, Lerner said clients' secure remote access plans mostly revolved around VPNs. But today, he gets a growing number of questions about ZTNA, which he described as "new and improved VPN-as-a-service."

A traditional VPN works by letting authenticated users into a network and barring others from entering. But anyone who makes it inside the security perimeter can then move around the network unchecked, leaving the organization vulnerable to lateral attacks.

A zero-trust model, on the other hand, hides applications, services and data from everyone -- whether inside or outside the network -- by default. Based on identity, as well as contextual data such as device posture and geographic location, ZTNA software grants users strictly limited access, letting them see only the assets they have explicit permission to view. ZTNA can also more efficiently and directly connect remote users to distributed cloud resources than VPN.

Recent data from Nemertes Research suggested zero-trust adoption is still low but poised for a significant spike. Just 16% of organizations surveyed said they were using zero-trust security in the first half of 2021, but 46% said they plan to adopt in the next two years. An additional one in four reported they are evaluating the technology. Those numbers align with Gartner's prediction that at least 60% of enterprises will replace legacy VPNs with ZTNA technology by 2023.

For now, however, it's important to note that traditional VPN access is far from obsolete. In fact, Aryaka found survey respondents' planned VPN investments actually increased 15% in 2021 over 2020.

David Johnson, CTO, Mulytic Labs GmbHDavid Johnson

David Johnson, CTO at data analytics provider Mulytic Labs GmbH, said he believes ZTNA is the future but added that some organizations still like the concept more than the reality. If the enterprise network is like a house, zero trust assumes attackers will get past the locks on the windows and doors. Every cupboard and drawer is therefore "under lock and key," which can be frustrating in practice, Johnson said.

"I see companies agree to ZTNA until the rubber hits the road and they have to lock down access for everyone," he said.

Nonetheless, Johnson and others still believe the pandemic marked the beginning of the end for traditional VPN. "It used to be the anchor technology for connecting remote users," Lerner said. "But now we can expect to see ZTNA taking over."

Campus LAN upgrades back in play

As organizations start to return to the office, many IT teams are also revisiting projects they moved to the backburner during the pandemic, such as campus LAN upgrades. Generally, Lerner said, most teams didn't want to spend money deploying new switches in physical offices when people weren't working there.

But with a return to normal life on the horizon, on-site connectivity is again on the radar for networking pros. While many companies plan to support a partly remote workforce moving forward, few intend to eliminate their offices entirely.

"Even if you go to a hybrid work environment, you still need to have a campus network; you just might not need as much infrastructure," Lerner said. For example, a company might deploy four switches and six access points instead of five switches and nine access points during its next LAN refresh, he added.

At Liberty Mutual, Belsky said Wi-Fi 6 upgrades will play an important role in the company's new post-pandemic normal. The high-density wireless standard was designed to support abrupt, exponential surges in user demand, such as in large concert venues or sporting arenas. These capabilities position it to keep up with the vagaries of a hybrid work environment -- if a departmental meeting suddenly draws hundreds of remote users to the office, for example.

"The density of Wi-Fi 6 enables large and unpredictable gatherings, which is imperative as companies start to return in a fluid manner," Belsky said.

If we learned anything from the impact the pandemic had on business, it's that the ability to adapt quickly is a strategic advantage.
Rick BelskyVice president and senior director of technology, Liberty Mutual Insurance

Liberty Mutual isn't alone in prioritizing a Wi-Fi 6 upgrade in the coming months. Lerner said the new wireless standard followed a typical adoption curve through early 2020, when the pandemic hit and put most campus wireless projects on hold. Interest in Wi-Fi 6 started picking up again around six months later and by the second half of 2021 had returned to roughly pre-pandemic levels, following a U-shaped curve, he said.

Even once the COVID-19 pandemic is finally in the rearview mirror, many networking pros say the lessons it taught should inform all future IT planning. In the ESG survey, more than 30% of respondents said they are increasing overall spending to invest more in long-term technology strategies in preparation for other unforeseen business disruptions.

"If we learned anything from the impact the pandemic had on business, it's that the ability to adapt quickly is a strategic advantage," Belsky said. On a practical level, that means avoiding long-term service contracts or getting locked into constraining technology roadmaps in favor of pay-as-you go options.

He also stressed the importance of embracing the migration to cloud and software-defined everything.

"Networks that can adjust with minimal disruption will be positioned to best address yet unknown needs," Belsky said.

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