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The network is “cool” again, according to analyst Forrester, whose Infrastructure technology for 2020 research overview report notes that as software-defined networking (SDN) finally gets its footing, 5G peeks over the horizon and additional wireless options step into the IT domain with the internet of things (IoT) and edge computing, networking is again gaining strong attention.
“The new vision of virtual network infrastructure (VNI) and unusual wireless options will prove unorthodox to many I&O [infrastructure and IT operations] professionals, which also makes it exciting,” write Forrester analysts Glenn O’Donnell and Lauren Nelson.
This renewed interest in networking is being driven by enterprises looking at how public cloud services can co-exist with on-premise IT, together with a focus on building applications using cloud-native principles. And as organisations begin to move simple infrastructure-as-a-service (IaaS) deployments of existing software, the remit of techniques such as virtualisation, programmable infrastructure and automation have been expanded beyond servers to encompass network infrastructure.
Shailesh Shukla, vice-president and general manager of networking at Google Cloud, believes speed, simplicity, security and convenience are critical in a customer-first world, especially when one minute of downtime can mean long-term consequences for an organisation’s brand reputation and bottom line.
“When customer experience is everything, the underlying network infrastructure is essential for any business’s long-term success. Yet, today, networks are more difficult than ever to build and maintain,” says Shukla.
As recently as five years ago, networks represented sets of static links. IT teams and network administrators focused on connecting systems to private datacentres, manually ensuring Point A could share information with Point B. Networking looked far different than it does today.
Fast forward to the present, and with the ubiquity of smartphones and unprecedented expectations for speed and convenience at scale, Shukla says there has been a sea change in the way systems and applications are built.
“As more and more enterprises embrace hybrid cloud solutions, having the right network to support business needs will be imperative to stay ahead of the digital trend, so that companies can react quickly to changing customer demands while keeping their operational costs low,” says Yiqun Cai, vice-president of network research and development for the Alibaba infrastructure service at Alibaba Cloud Intelligence.
Cai recommends that enterprises upgrade their network so that they are able to support the functionality required by cloud-native applications, improve security, and maximise stability and scalability.
“Another advantage for timely network upgrades is that businesses can consolidate physical space and data to generate business insights – what we call data intelligence – in the process. This real-time intelligence can then help CIOs to evaluate existing operational strategies to maximise ROI [return on investment],” Cai adds.
From static to dynamic networking
A cloud-native architecture goes hand-in-hand with microservices, which enables enterprises to break down large monolithic code into smaller and smaller components that are easier to manage and, ideally, can be upgraded independently of the other components.
According to Google, businesses across industries are beginning to embrace microservices, breaking up their monolithic applications into multiple self-contained functions.
But, says Shukla: “While microservice architectures are intended to facilitate agility, they introduce new challenges. For an application to run seamlessly, all of the microservices that comprise it must communicate with each other in a secure, performant, low-latency manner.”
Given that applications can consume many microservices, all of which need to be tied together by networking technology, Shukla believes the scope and importance of the network has never been greater.
“Networking has become dynamic,” he says. “In turn, understanding and maintaining system health has grown into a Herculean task, one that traditional IT point solutions simply cannot handle. And hybrid and multicloud environments generate even more heterogeneity and complexity, only worsening the headache.”
New networking approaches
Forrester recommends CIOs consider the network as the central nervous system of the business. The analyst firm urges IT decision-makers to steer their networking purchases beyond SDN to fulfil a VNI vision that engages and empowers customers.
Shukla argues that traditional approaches to networking are unsuitable for cloud-native computing, which draws heavily on microservices. He advises IT decision-makers to build modern networks atop an entirely new set of technologies and frameworks.
Shukla says the notion of open network standards has gained renewed significance in the microservices-based era. Open application programming interfaces (APIs) are able to stitch together applications across on-premise and cloud IT infrastructure. According to Shukla, this enables enterprises to preserve their existing infrastructure investments while modernising at their own pace.
In addition, Shukla believes IT decision-makers need to consider that, as networks become more dynamic, there are security implications. “While legacy networks only had a single ingress and egress point, network security today involves safeguarding an endless number of disaggregated endpoints,” he says.
For Shukla, this represents an opportunity for IT departments, since they can build security intrinsically into the network, rather than layering firewalls on top of it. In doing so, they can create a native, always-on security platform wherever the network lives.
“Since the network sees all traffic flows, it can detect when activity deviates from the norm and identify risks of attack,” he says.
There is also an opportunity to make use of machine learning “to tame dynamic networks”, according to Shukla. “Until recently, network operations have been largely reactive. Misconfigurations weren’t discovered until after they were pushed to production, and network management teams spent the majority of their time simply troubleshooting problems,” he says. “But with machine learning-based technologies, businesses can, for example, monitor performance faster and at a tremendously larger scale than was previously possible.”
In Shukla’s experience, machine learning tools can also help prevent outages by proactively predicting the impact of a migrated workload or configuration change before it’s deployed, and even recommend a fix.
Networking as the backbone
One of the promises of this new approach to networking is that network infrastructure can be programmed and networking tasks automated.
In the Forrester report Jump-start your network automation, published in February, the analyst firm points out that many early attempts at network automation tried focusing on supporting new roll-outs of software-defined networking within a datacentre.
However, report authors Andre Kindness and Chris Gardner warn: “While seemingly a perfect fit, datacentre networking may be one of the most complex areas to automate. The interaction of servers, storage, virtualisation and advanced networking infrastructure can make automation difficult.”
The analysts suggest that IT decision-makers start with networks that are less complex.
Automation requires a different mindset to traditional networking. Kindness and Gardner from Forester suggest that: “It makes no sense to keep hiring the same type of professionals you’ve hired for decades.” Instead they urge CIOs to replicate what many of the Tier 1 cloud providers do, and include programming skills as part of the networking skills, experience and education requirements in hiring and promotion processes.
As customer expectations inevitably continue to grow, so will network complexity. Networking is the critical backbone that makes sophisticated customer experiences possible. As Google’s Shukla points out, these experiences will change as tastes and trends shift over time, and networking technology is constantly evolving.