The COVID-19 pandemic forced enterprises to rethink their network infrastructure, pausing some initiatives and accelerating others as the need for digital transformation became glaringly apparent.
Clearly, data center strategies needed to change as the enterprise network became the focal point for many companies. Some companies have gently appealed to workers to return to the office, but hybrid work environments have persisted, continuing to put pressure on network modernization projects.
New network architecture is needed to drive better bandwidth, better UX and a more streamlined and scalable network. Ultimately, a more modern network and applications are crucial to keep businesses competitive.
Let's look at some of the network modernization strategies that businesses should consider.
1. Move compute off-site by adopting cloud computing
Cloud computing enables a business to change from a model underpinned by Capex and depreciation to a more efficient consumption-based IT model. Development and deployment times are shortened dramatically.
Moving to cloud is often a daunting challenge. But starting with managed services is a way to address application modernization while enabling on-site applications to prepare for future migration. Choosing SaaS tools may enable organizations to bypass application changes altogether in favor of a new application platform.
In that vein, network as a service, or NaaS, is an offering to consider that reduces infrastructure demands by moving some networking capabilities to the cloud. As cloud services proliferate, building applications around a multi-cloud strategy becomes more critical as each cloud provider has different strengths.
2. Consider containers
As the consumption-focused business model takes root, container networking, whether on premises or through cloud services, creates a more efficient way to deliver network services for consumption by applications. Additionally, it yields a dramatically smaller footprint than networks full of physical servers or even VMs. Containers are better suited for lighter-weight workloads and service-based instances.
Now is a great time for organizations to inventory their virtual environment to determine which workloads may be suitable for migration from VMs to containers, reducing infrastructure demands and increasing density.
3. Invest in bigger pipes
Strategies like software-defined networking, or SDN, can help with the provisioning and management of the network. But, sometimes, it's not just about how smart the routing is. Sometimes, organizations just need more capacity as things like IoT and rich media clog network pipes.
The proliferation of data, applications and services -- whether traffic is server to server or server to client -- is putting a strain on networking routes. The move to the next generation of wired networking, in the form of 2.5 Gbps client networking and 10 Gbps or 25 Gbps server networking, is underway. This should open faster network paths to handle the surge in data and application needs.
Addressing this need is typically quite expensive when starting at the core and less impactful when starting at the edge. The real bang for the buck for most companies is at the aggregation layer. Adding in more capacity here pays dividends in helping optimize overall traffic congestion.
4. Go big on Wi-Fi 6
On the wireless front, Wi-Fi 6 access points (APs) are now available from every major vendor. This latest generation complements high-speed wired networking and provides a more flexible deployment for companies reconfiguring workspaces for employees returning to the office.
Because all the different Wi-Fi variants are designed to coexist, there's no need to address a wholesale change of all APs. Instead, businesses should analyze their current patterns and average loads per AP, focusing first on upgrading those with the heaviest traffic. Over time, moving everything to Wi-Fi 6 should provide better management benefits, but don't ignore the quicker near-term advantages.
5. Rethink VPNs
Not every network modernization project is focused on employees returning to the physical headquarters. Some companies are seeing their modernization plans focus on turning the work-from-home model into a more permanent strategy. To support larger numbers of employees working remotely, businesses are rethinking their VPN and associated cloud computing strategies for employees who continue to work remotely.
It might make sense to consider software-defined WAN (SD-WAN) for high-value remote workers or cloud-based VPNs to take the load off your current network endpoints.
6. Evaluate SD-WAN for remote users
SD-WAN provides better access, control and resilience for branch offices, as well as optimizes remote access to cloud applications. Some businesses are even considering deploying SD-WAN endpoints for their high-value remote users because the technology provides a better always-on experience than the typical VPN connection.
Many WAN service providers now offer an SD-WAN service, so that is typically the best place to start as it helps to ensure better compatibility.
7. Adopt automation
With administration tasks scaling faster than resources, businesses need to work smarter, not harder. Automation, especially when linked to business cases or business rules processing, enables a company to be more efficient and responsive to administrative requests.
As AI technologies mature rapidly, AI-based automation is now a viable option. As many of the tasks, like deployment and migration, are predictable, AI can help streamline these functions. Even the new offerings, like OpenAI's ChatGPT, are being integrated into network automation tools.
8. Use crucial advanced reporting backed by AI
All these network modernization and IT changes create a far more complex and data-intensive corporate environment. With so much instrumentation, advanced reporting projects become more important for businesses to stay on top of change. AI, used to help analyze and identify trends and provide early warnings on network security issues, has become more common as modernized networks get more complex.
If an enterprise currently relies on reporting from multiple, disparate tools, now is a good time to investigate aggregated tools that can correlate reporting across multiple functional areas, boosting insights by connecting more dots for the IT team.
9. Secure it all
The changes in network management are profound, and they affect network security the most. The need for strong cybersecurity is critical for all businesses as the risk goes beyond just infrastructure; it extends out to business reputation, income and even customers.
In this area of security, it's often better to rely on experts than trying to tackle the problem in-house as contracted services have probably seen many of the network exploits and issues far more times and can react faster as issues arise.
Editor's note: This article was updated to include more up-to-date information on network modernization strategies, especially in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic.