Five networking trends teams should focus on in 2023

Distributed IT and hybrid work create network complexity, which is driving adoption of AIOps, network and security convergence, multi-cloud, private 5G and digital twins in 2023.

Bob Laliberte

Highly distributed IT environments are forcing network evolution. Organizations maturing their digital transformation initiatives continue to distribute applications across multiple private data centers, public clouds and edge locations. Simultaneously, hybrid work and IoT initiatives require organizations to extend corporate networks to vastly increased numbers of remote workers and connected devices. This results in distributed environments with a larger attack surface and increased risk of a cyberattack.

All of these changes combined are driving the adoption of new network technologies and operational frameworks to help organizations provide secure connectivity where and when it is needed to support the business. In addition, an uncertain economic environment and pressure to meet sustainability goals will also impact network decisions in the upcoming year.

Organizations should focus on five areas in 2023 to ensure their networks can enable the business.

1. Network automation and AIOps

The increase in corporate locations, devices and remote workers has led to an overwhelming number of devices that need to be configured, deployed and managed. Many organizations are already using network automation -- especially for repetitive configuration and deployment activities. According to TechTarget's Enterprise Strategy Group (ESG) December 2022 research on end-to-end network visibility and management trends, 40% of organizations are already using network automation extensively, and another 42% use it in a limited way.

The increased complexity of a highly distributed environment, however, will require organizations to employ automation in their Day 2 activities. This means all of the network information needs to be collected, processed and analyzed. Because the work can't be done manually in a reasonable amount of time, network operations teams need to use artificial intelligence and machine learning (AI/ML) technology, especially adaptive AI (technology that continuously retrains AI models to quickly adapt to changes in the environment) to get actionable information in real time, including troubleshooting, anomalous activity, predictive analysis and more.

Unfortunately, according to the research, only 12% of an organization's network automation tools leverage AI/ML capabilities extensively. This will have to change for organizations to operate modern networks effectively and efficiently. Yet making this change requires a cultural change. Operations teams have to trust the technology to automate the correct remediation. Understandably, this validation process will take time, which is why organizations need to get started with the process now.

Unfortunately, according to the research, only 12% of an organization's network automation tools use AI/ML capabilities extensively.

Virtually all network and third-party vendors currently have or will have AI/ML capabilities that operations teams need to work with. This doesn't require an all or nothing approach, as most products offer the ability to deliver alerts and recommendations that help the team validate the technology before enabling full automation. The majority of users report using the recommendation phase. Given the tight economic environment and inability to add head count, it will be imperative that network operations teams are working with AIOps and network automation tools to drive operational efficiency in these distributed complex environments.

2. Network and security convergence

In a highly distributed environment, the network has become a valuable source of information to help identify and prevent or limit the impact of cyberattacks. As organizations continue to build out zero trust and Secure Access Service Edge (SASE) frameworks, many vendors are bringing tightly integrated or fully converged network and security products and services to enable secure connectivity to every site. While single vendor tools may take time to fully integrate due to existing investments, most offer the ability to start in one area and expand over time. Keep in mind that culture, process and converging network and security teams' tools will take time. In addition, operations teams recognize the value of network traffic information to identify and alert on anomalous activity, enabling actions to be taken. In addition to SASE, organizations are leveraging network management tools with integrated network detection and response capabilities to help find suspicious activity faster. Highly distributed environments create a larger attack surface. Organizations need to deploy the right tools, organizational structure and processes to mitigate that risk. New security frameworks and vendor tools are available to help drive the convergence of networking and security. Due to the traditional siloed nature of IT, however, executive support will be required to ensure proper alignment, consistent goals and streamlined processes for converged network and security teams.

3. Multi-cloud networking

The last few years have seen a dramatic rise in the number of organizations using multiple public clouds in a meaningful way. ESG's 2022 research report "Distributed Cloud Series: Application Infrastructure Modernization Trends" indicates 86% of survey respondents are using multiple public clouds (IaaS and PaaS). While the increased use of public clouds enables agility for the business, it can create more complexity for the network team. Given that more than half of the companies surveyed indicated a problematic shortage of staff cloud and IT architecture skills, the need to learn new skills for each new cloud provider can limit that agility. Fortunately, a number of vendors now have products or are bringing tools to market to abstract the complexity of learning different cloud vendor technologies and enable organizations to quickly, easily and securely connect to one or more public cloud vendors. While adoption of this technology has increased over the past year, 2023 will see significant adoption of these technologies as organizations become aware of them. As organization increase their dependence on multiple public clouds, multi-cloud networking will be a must-have technology. It negates the need to create a separate team to master specific skill sets for each cloud vendor and accelerates the time to deploy or move applications to one or more public clouds.

4. Delineation of private 5G and Wi-Fi use cases

Wi-Fi is a well-established and deployed technology in virtually every enterprise (essentially the modern equivalent to dial tone), so it's a no brainer to predict that organizations will deploy the latest generation of Wi-Fi technology. With more spectrum available and more providers rolling out products and services, however, private 5G deployments are poised to grow significantly in 2023. As a result, organizations must determine the complementary or noncomplementary nature of these technologies and decide which technology will be a better fit for a specific application.

Certain industrial use cases favor 5G (especially those with private LTE), while Wi-Fi 6/6E will continue to be used in enterprise carpeted spaces. Large sports stadiums and venues continue to deploy both in an effort to provide a differentiated experience on game day. Also, 5G has the opportunity to play as a primary connection for SD-WAN deployments, but those are unlikely to be private deployments. Any time we asked about 5G adoption in our research over the past year, there were high responses for its adoption. While these may be aspirational in nature, the reality is that many vendors are coming out with products to deploy private 5G in the enterprise. Certainly, private 5G has the potential to provide significant business benefits for the right use case. But it can be costly, complex to deploy and require new skill sets, so organizations would be advised to track early private 5G deployments in 2023 to determine if it is applicable to their specific environments. Organizations pursuing private 5G should also consider consuming these as managed services to accelerate deployments and ensure operational efficiencies.

5. Increased adoption of digital twin technology for networking

The top IT goal for an organization's digital transformation is driving operational efficiency, according to ESG's "2023 Technology Spending Intentions" research. Digital twin technology enables network operations teams to build an identical virtual or digital network environment (twin) that replicates an organization's network.

By continuously collecting network-state data, operations teams can make moves, adds and changes virtually and see what happens without actually breaking any physical network connections. This is critical for Day 2 operations, which occur when a product is shipped or made available to the customer and are focused on maintaining, monitoring and optimizing the system. Once the network is in production, the impact of a problem is much higher. Organizations can use this technology to have access to a map of the current network environment and ensure higher levels of business resiliency by identifying and existing vulnerabilities, as well as address any potential issues related to changes prior to them actually occurring.

The ability to provide this view and capability across multiple vendors would be powerful. While most digital twin providers to date are from third parties, network vendors are also building out this technology to help their customers. Given the current supply chain delays, digital twin software can be used by operations teams to become familiar with the technology and configure the network devices in the virtual environment. Then, when the devices arrive, operations teams can simply download the configuration to the devices with confidence that it is configured correctly.

Having complete visibility into the network environment and being able to validate any moves, adds or changes prior in a virtual environment before deploying in a physical environment will dramatically reduce the risk involved with moves, adds and changes, as well as enable organizations to accelerate lifecycle management activities.

ESG is a division of TechTarget.

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