Each year, networking analysts lay out their technology predictions for the next year. No one, however, accurately predicted COVID-19 and how it would transform businesses. When we look at the networking technology trends for 2022, it helps to consider the primary themes of the past couple years to see how those trends fared in the face of a global pandemic.
In 2020, at the onset of the pandemic in the U.S., the key focus areas in networking were software-defined WAN (SD-WAN), 5G cellular, Wi-Fi 6, AI enablement and network automation. These technologies will continue to be critical areas of focus in 2022, primarily because they represent true technological advantages for businesses.
Let's take a look at these top networking technology trends and how they're shaping the industry.
SD-WAN has become far more critical as businesses shut down offices, driving either a hybrid work environment or a complete work-from-home (WFH) strategy. WFH went from temporary to permanent for many companies, which redefined the network edge.
VPNs, which were often the point-to-point solution for remote workers, gave way to always-on SD-WAN appliances for many tasks as the network edge extended into employees' homes. With businesses becoming more distributed, they have accelerated their migration plans to SD-WAN because of the improved experience and security for their WFH workforce.
2. 5G cellular
Because of the pandemic, the migration to 5G cellular changed significantly and not just because some oddball conspiracy theories suggested 5G caused the pandemic. While carriers continued their 5G rollouts, many businesses that planned to migrate to 5G have stuck with 4G/LTE for now. Government programs for 5G, like smart cities, came under pressure from the pandemic's unexpected and mounting healthcare costs.
But where 5G has gained a foothold -- and will continue to grow in 2022 and beyond -- is fixed 5G to the home. Many WFH companies are finding fixed 5G as a solution to segment work systems from home systems and deliver internet to WFH employees who did not have previous broadband access.
3. Wi-Fi 6
The transition to Wi-Fi 6 has been problematic for many businesses that began planning the migration for 2020 or 2021. The shift to WFH has had a dramatic effect on commercial real estate. Many offices are shuttered, and those that are still running often see lower employee density.
Device density, one of the greatest benefits of Wi-Fi 6, is in less demand in the new commercial real estate reality. Where Wi-Fi 6 is growing, and will continue to grow, is on the consumer side, especially with WFH. The demands of home-based employees for higher bandwidth can more easily justify the small price in moving to the new technology.
4. AI enablement
The AI enablement of networking products has been rolling along as expected. 2020 had a concerted focus on the enablement of applications with AI, especially in the security and analytics areas.
As the workplace splintered into WFH and hybrid environments, the security threat profile changed dramatically. Additionally, managing productivity for remote workers is infinitely more challenging, and AI can help bolster the human efforts through monitoring and analytics.
While AI can't replace humans entirely, it does a tremendous job of scaling and adapting as the landscape underneath is shifting.
5. Network automation
Finally, network automation has had an important role because of the pandemic. As employees moved to WFH, IT was clearly not immune to the changes. Many IT professionals became further removed from their systems.
Additionally, many IT folks realized they were now managing far more physical devices than ever before and relying more on automation to help compensate for the changing work profile. As we roll into 2022, automation will continue to grow as it has proved its value through these trying times.
2020 and 2021 have brought new dynamics to the field of networking but not necessarily new ideas. Instead of radical, breakthrough products, most companies were positioning their IT budgets to handle radical, breakthrough processes. It was not as much about new technologies and far more about new ways to do things.
As we step into 2022, the ingenuity of IT will continue to be challenged as many of the changes expected to be temporary have become the new normal. We should expect today's changes to have a lasting effect on networking for years.