Blueprint: The Evolution of the Network, Part 2

NOTE: This article originally appeared here.

If you’re not prepared for the future of networking, you’re already behind.

That may sound harsh, but it’s true. Given the speed at which technology evolves compared to the rate most of us typically evolve in terms of our skillsets, there’s no time to waste in preparing ourselves to manage and monitor the networks of tomorrow. Yes, this is a bit of a daunting proposition considering the fact that some of us are still trying to catch up with today’s essentials of network monitoring and management, but the reality is that they’re not really mutually exclusive, are they?

In part of one this series, I outlined how the networks of today have evolved from those of yesteryear, and what today’s new essentials of network monitoring and management are as a consequence. By paying careful attention, you will likely have picked up on ways the lessons from the past that I described helped shape those new essentials.

Similarly, today’s essentials will help shape those of tomorrow. Thus, as I said, getting better at leveraging today’s essentials of network monitoring and managing is not mutually exclusive from preparing for the networks of tomorrow.

Before delving into what the next generation of network monitoring and management will look like, it’s important to first explore what the next generation of networking will look like.

On the Horizon

Above all else, one thing is for certain: We networking professionals should expect tomorrow’s technology to create more complex networks resulting in even more complex problems to solve. With that in mind, here are the top networking trends that are likely to shape the networks of the future:

Networks growing in all directions
Fitbits, tablets, phablets and applications galore. The explosion of IoT, BYOD, BYOA and BYO-everything else is upon us. With this trend still in its infancy, the future of connected devices and applications will be not only about the quantity of connected devices, but also the quality of their connections tunneling network bandwidth.

But it goes beyond the gadgets end users bring into the environment. More and more, commodity devices such as HVAC infrastructure, environmental systems such as lighting, security devices and more all use bandwidth—cellular or WiFi—to communicate outbound and receive updates and instructions inbound. Companies are using, or planning to use, IoT devices to track product, employees and equipment. This explosion of devices that consume or produce data will, not might, create a potentially disruptive explosion in bandwidth consumption, security concerns and monitoring and management requirements.

IPv6 eventually takes the stage…or sooner (as in now!)
Recently, ARIN was unable to fulfill a request for IPv4 addresses because the request was greater than the contiguous blocks available. Meanwhile, IPv6 is now almost always enabled by default and is therefore creating challenges for IT professionals even if they, and their organizations, have committed to putting off their own IPv6 decisions. The upshot of all this is that IPv6 is a reality today. There is an inevitable and quickly approaching moment when switching over will no longer be an option, but a requirement.

SDN and NFV will become the mainstream
Software defined networking (SDN) and network function virtualization (NFV) are just in their infancy and should be expected to become mainstream in the next five to seven years. With SDN and virtualization creating new opportunities for hybrid infrastructure, a serious look at adoption of these technologies is becoming more and more important.

So long WAN Optimization, Hello ISPs
There are a number of reasons WAN technology is and will be kicked to the curb in greater fervency. With bandwidth increases outpacing CPU and custom hardware’s ability to perform deep inspection and optimization, and with ISPs helping to circumvent the cost and complexities associated with WAN accelerators, WAN optimization will only see the light of tomorrow in unique use cases where the rewards outweigh the risks. As most of us will admit, WAN accelerators are expensive and complicated, making ISPs more and more attractive. Their future living inside our networks is certainly bright.

Farewell L4 Firewalling 
With the mass of applications and services moving towards web-based deployment, using Layer 4 (L4) firewalls to block these services entirely will not be tolerated. A firewall incapable of performing deep packet analysis and understanding the nature of the traffic at the Layer 7 (L7), or the application layer, will not satisfy the level of granularity and flexibility that most network administrators should offer their users. On this front, change is clearly inevitable for us network professional, whether it means added network complexity and adapting to new infrastructures or simply letting withering technologies go.

Preparing to Manage the Networks of Tomorrow  

So, what can we do to prepare to monitor and manage the networks of tomorrow? Consider the following:

Understand the “who, what, why and where” of IoT, BYOD and BYOA
Connected devices cannot be ignored. According to 451 Research, mobile Internet of Things (IoT) and Machine-to-Machine (M2M) connections will increase to 908 million in just five years, this compared to 252 million just last year. This staggering statistic should prompt you to start creating a plan of action on how you will manage nearly four times the number of devices infiltrating your networks today.

Your strategy can either aim to manage these devices within the network or set an organizational policy to regulate traffic altogether. Nonprofit IT trade association CompTIA noted in a recent survey, many companies are trying to implement partial and even zero BYOD policies to regulate security and bandwidth issues. Even though policies may seem like an easy fix, curbing all of tomorrow’s BYOD/BYOA is nearly impossible. As such, you will have to understand your network device traffic in incremental metrics in order to optimize and secure them. Even more so, you will need to understand network segments that aren’t even in your direct control, like the tablets, phablets and Fitbits, to properly isolate issues.

Know the ins and outs of the new mainstream 
As stated earlier, SDN, NFV and IPv6 will become the new mainstream. We can start preparing for these technologies’ future takeovers by taking a hybrid approach to our infrastructures today. This will put us ahead of the game with an understanding of how these technologies work, the new complexities they create and how they will ultimately affect configuration management and troubleshooting ahead of mainstream deployment.

Start comparison shopping now
Going through the exercise of evaluating ISPs, virtualized network options and other on-the-horizon technologies—even if you don’t intend to switch right now—will help you nail down your particular requirements. Sometimes, knowing a vendor has or works with technology you don’t need right now, such as IPv6, but might later can and should influence on your decision.

Brick in, brick out
Taking on new technologies can feel overwhelming to those of us with “boots on the ground” because the new technology can often simply seem like one more mouth to feed, so to speak. As much as possible, look for ways that potential new additions will not just enhance, but replace the old guard. Maybe your new real-time deep packet inspection won’t completely replace L4 firewalls, but if it can reduce them significantly—while at the same time increasing insight and the ability to respond intelligently to issues—then the net result should be a better day for you. If you don’t do this, then more times than not, new technology will indeed simply seem to increase workload and do little else. This is also a great measuring stick to identify new technologies whose time may not yet have truly come just yet, at least not for your organization.

At a more basic layer, if you have to replace three broken devices and you realize that the newer equipment is far more manageable or has more useful features, consider replacing the entire fleet of old technology even if it hasn’t fallen apart yet. The benefits of consistency often far outweigh the initial pain of sticker shock.

To conclude this series, my opening statement from part one merits repeating: learn from the past, live in the present and prepare for the future. The evolution of networking waits for no one. Don’t be left behind.