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IT Priorities 2020: ‘Benestrophe’ for networking as UK IT departments come to terms with new normal

As 2020 ends, all traditional bets are off as Covid-19 completely changes the landscape of IT, with secure connectivity and cloud emerging at the core of enterprises’ needs for the foreseeable future

Arguably, 2020 really only lasted three months. Until the end of March, there seemed to be a consensus on how the year would pan out, with firms increasingly investigating how they could best take advantage of 5G and how access to full-fibre networks could improve business efficiency.

After March, the world was a totally different place. In addition to the death and disease, Covid-19 caused all predictions and planning for the new year, made only a few months earlier as is usual for companies, to become largely redundancy.

Without doubt, Covid-19 has been a catastrophe. And yet when talking about networking and collaboration, some are using the word “benestrophe” – the very opposite of catastrophe – referring to many good things happening at once, if indeed it is current to refer to them as good in the first place.

Philosophy aside, what is undoubted is that the state of networking and collaboration looks very different at the end of 2020 than it did 12 months, or indeed nine months, earlier. And the importance of both networking and collaboration look set to grow, according to the 2020 Computer Weekly/TechTarget IT Priorities survey.

Indeed, the study showed that networking leads in spending growth and budget impact in 2020, while traditional and cloud-focused connectivity tools also had strong support during the year.

The study carried out field work from July to September to gather market insights on technology plans for 2021 and the impact of the pandemic on technology spend outlook for the upcoming 12 months – into the first half of 2021. It aggregated 1,000 global responses to reflect a blend of large organisations, medium-sized enterprises and small to medium-sized enterprises across a variety of industries.

For the UK segment of the study, the survey stressed that the impact of Covid-19 was evident in the results and marked differences were revealed by UK IT teams and their colleagues in other territories.

On a yearly basis, and similar to the previous edition of the survey carried out in April, the coronavirus has changed everything and, in terms of networking, has turned everything upside down. Remote conferencing and collaboration are now business necessities and just as important to the supplier community as to users.

It seems incredible in November 2020 that at the start of the year, unified communications (UC) could be described as a marginal activity and even regarded by some respected voices as in terminal decline. But the new survey found that UC topped the list of IT professionals’ most popular projects, gaining the highest percentage in the survey, followed by network virtualisation and the need to enhance and/or expand remote connectivity.

The most widespread projects for subjects in the survey were: end-user security training; governance, risk and compliance tools; and multifactor authentication.

In a way, the pandemic was found to have made technology investments both harder and easier. Looking at the way in which Covid has impacted budgets in general, the study found that flat budgets are now the norm, but businesses that did move were five times more likely to cut budgets than increase them.

Almost two-fifths (39%) indicated that they were raising budgets before the pandemic, but the study showed that 38% of firms said their budgets had been cut by more than 5%, while just 10% said their budget had increased by a similar amount.

In terms of what companies were doing differently, 53% said they were investing in enabling a remote workforce for the foreseeable future, and one-third said they were spending to move more workloads to the cloud to increase agility.

For those making cuts, these were in the main automating tasks to reduce human capital costs (indicated by 35%), while 43% of those increasing budgets said they were moving workloads to the cloud for agility (43%).

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As regards mobility and end-user computing, the survey showed that remote computing had set end-user computing management “on fire” and delivered it to the “centre of the plate”, a position that the survey said was rarely enjoyed by technologies for the end-user.

As ever with regard to mobility, security and secure connectivity were noted as key concerns for 2020/21. And while hardware has a newfound importance, the study described virtual desktop infrastructure/workspace as the new end-user computing “promised land”. While 37% said Windows 10 deployment/migration was their main priority in this regard, enhancing/expanding remote connectivity was acknowledged by 26% as their top aim.

But the main action was investment in networking infrastructure. Driving this general increase was the feeling by 55% of firms that were expecting half of their workforces to be remote two years from now. Yet the current climate, with massively increased remote working, has generated bandwidth and performance issues that have hampered productivity.

Asked where their organisation has experienced issues due to the current climate, the study found remote work driving the majority of connectivity issues. One-third of the sample indicted that internet connectivity – remote use of personal networks – as the largest source, along with network traffic in general.

Interestingly, one-third said they had not experienced issues. Remote user connectivity to business applications and resources was cited as an issue by 27%, followed by video/VoIP by 20%. This is interesting given the vast increase in video conferencing since the pandemic began, as evidenced by the rocketing fortunes of Zoom.

Covid-19 has clearly highlighted the importance of secure connectivity, especially for firms planning for change, namely in the distribution of the workforce with its associated impacts on data traffic and security. The survey showed remote working issues at the forefront and a reprioritisation of security has become easier to justify.

Nearly half (46%) of survey respondents indicated that remote working enablement has become easier to justify – the most popular category. This was followed by security/risk management (37%) and cloud (36%) – including investing in cloud computing, storage or applications – and then mobility/end-user computing (31%). More than a quarter said they had accelerated their digital transformation plans.

Looking to the future, the survey stressed that remote working is here to stay, with resilient networking – encompassing availability, disaster recovery, scalability and flexibility – a recurring theme. Business phone projects were seeing abandonment with declining investment, but one-third of organisations said they had no planned expenditure on general networking.

Of those who were planning to make an investment in networking, the most popular category was network monitoring, indicated by 27% of respondents, followed by managed network services – such as VNFs, security, MPLS and network management – cited by 20%, and network analytics (13%). The currently hot topic of campus LAN, wired or wireless, was indicated by 13%, the same as for the internet of things (IoT).

Looking at the connectivity or access-based network initiatives that organisations plan to deploy in the next 12 months, VPN/NAC (remote access as a networking initiative) was the leading category with 31% of respondents. Next was upgrade or improve public/private/multicloud connectivity, cited by 23%, the same as for Wi-Fi 6 implementation. Upgrading access points or cable to WLAN infrastructures was chosen by 19%.

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