There’s a saying in football that you never notice a good referee. Yet they have the most important job – ensuring the match runs as smoothly as possible. Without a referee to police the action, countless games would descend into chaos.
The same principle applies to the IT network. Its traditional role is to direct and deliver data smoothly and quickly, from data center to cloud to edge to device, transparently and efficiently. And just like the referee in a football match, its power and importance can’t be overstated.
In the boardroom however, it can be a hard sell to talk specifically about networking. But, in today’s business world, it simply isn’t possible to run modern, cloud-native apps and get them (and the burgeoning volume of data they consume) into the hands of users without the right network. By extension, networks are critical to enabling employees to work anywhere, and improving customer experience – and thus improving revenue and competitiveness. In that light, it becomes abundantly clear that networking deserves pride of place on the board agenda.
With an increasingly disparate and distributed workforce, and our reliance on modern apps, clouds and new devices, organizations need to recognize the incremental value that a modernized network delivers. A modern network is delivered in software and is self-driving, self-provisioning, self-healing, intrinsically secure, and above all, scalable. But how and why has networking evolved to this point, in its efforts to facilitate modern business IT?
Networking in the context of business-winning modern apps and data
There are two key agents of change driving network transformation, the first being the end user. Users are increasingly data hungry, and expect an ever-richer experience, meaning apps need to deliver data in larger volumes, to more places, on more devices, more often, and in a more consumable, user-friendly format.
The nature of all this data, and where it lives, has changed radically over the past few years. Data is now everywhere, existing anywhere from data center, to the edge, to endpoints, and everywhere in between – creating distributed ‘centers of data’ rather than traditional data centers. Overall, IDC predicts that between 2019 and 2025, the amount of new data that is captured, created, and replicated every year will grow at a 61% compound growth rate.
The second key agent of change in network transformation are applications - the primary modern vehicle for delivering data and experiences to end users. By 2024 there will be more than three quarters of a billion applications – a six-fold increase in just ten years. This is huge. Just like consumers in any other walk of life, users want these new apps delivered faster and faster as their needs change.
Developers, therefore, need to develop new apps fast. They need a network that supports this new rapid development process and that seamlessly and automatically scales with the needs of new applications. It’s becoming increasingly obvious that traditional network infrastructures are no longer fit for purpose in this regard.
With so much riding on the success of these new, cloud-native applications, businesses must understand the value that a modernized network infrastructure can release, and to give them the board-level consideration they deserve.
Networking in the context of reparameterization
Security and networking have always gone together, but as the threat landscape has deteriorated and the demands on networks have grown, we are seeing an even faster convergence. As a result, reparameterization – the blurring of an organization’s network boundary with the outside world – is becoming the norm, whether by accident or design. Why? Because of increasing cloud adoption, and because modern cloud-native applications are based more and more on distributed architectures, such as microservices and containers, that exist outside of the core network. The extraordinary events of 2020 have also accelerated this trend towards modern apps even further.
Reparameterization brings challenges, however. The first is complexity. With organizations implementing modern applications that in some cases span on-premises, cloud and edge environments, it’s extremely challenging for IT to manage application and service portfolios with any level of consistency. The second is an expanded attack surface - the increase in network communication between and within distributed applications creates many more potential opportunities for hostile breaches.
The traditional model of being comfortable solely with perimeter-based security, i.e. a ‘hard’ firewall-protected exterior and a largely unprotected ‘soft’ network interior, is now largely redundant. Organizations need to get at least one step ahead of possible threats, using network-delivered capabilities such as micro-segmentation to make their infrastructure and applications intrinsically secure, both inside and out.
Delivering improved security via the network, rather than by a plethora of discrete point solutions, facilitates a universal ‘zero-trust’ approach to security, and the added intelligence, automatability and agility it provides. This is a key attribute of a modern network.
Key factors of a successful Modern Network
Modern networking demands a software-defined, virtual evolution of the traditional physical network, which leverages whatever existing infrastructure is available to support dynamic modern applications. In effect, we can now tell the network what we want to achieve through network and security policy (rather than telling it how to achieve it), and let the network get on with implementing it through Machine Learning/Artificial Intelligence-driven automation. It is an evolution that drives universal and consistent connectivity, and delivers intrinsic security to modern and traditional applications, to both meet user demand at speed and supports business priorities.
A successful modern network infrastructure consists of three core elements, namely:
- Modern app connectivity services
A consistent end-user experience is a business imperative. Organizations need to know exactly what users are on the network and the apps they’re using. A modern network uses capabilities such as service mesh so applications can communicate internally and with one another, and security models such as Secure Access Service Edge (SASE) to give networks the agility to adapt to changing business needs in real time.
- Multi-cloud network virtualization
A modern network must also be agile in response to changing business priorities. It needs to be self-driven and self-healing, using AI and machine learning to reconfigure networking and security policies while in progress. This again is where SASE comes in, steering traffic on a packet-by-packet basis across multiple clouds and locations to achieve the highest quality of user experience.
- Independence from the physical network infrastructure
Software-defined networking is what delivers a modern network’s agility, but the underlying physical network infrastructure still plays a core role - that of physical connectivity for the network traffic. It acts as a generic all-purpose platform, controlled by the overlay virtual network, that can be reconfigured and rerouted as required in real-time, flexing capacity up or down as needed. The physical infrastructure can sit anywhere, with its capacity being added or subtracted seamlessly to the virtual network, without impacting security. This allows businesses to make cost effective use of multi-vendor physical infrastructures, wherever they may be.
Mastering a modern network to drive business success
Customer experience is directly linked to business success and is fed both by modern apps and the data that flows through them. A successful modern network ultimately puts the end-user first, intelligently and automatically adapting to match whatever journey they are on. By enabling greater alignment with business outcomes, modern networks provide the invaluable and dependable digital foundation needed to flourish in the unpredictable world that we find ourselves in.
Nick Cross, Vice President, Network, Security & Automation, EMEA, VMware