ICYMI: The Network: Still the Foundation of IT

(This article originally appeared on ITBriefcase.net)

Managing a modern enterprise network is not for the faint of heart: with more devices on the network; the always-present threat of data breach; and the challenges brought about by trends such as software-defined networking (SDN), the Internet of Things (IoT), and the cloud (including hybrid IT), there’s more pressure than ever on today’s network administrators. Yet, even under these high-stakes circumstances (and, in some cases, because of them), network performance must still be maintained to the highest standards.

In short, the network always has been and will continue to be the foundation if IT as we know it. The question is: How do you manage this foundation to not only meet the challenges at present, but also those on the horizon?

A brief history of the enterprise network

Before answering that question, it may be helpful to step back and examine the evolution of the modern day enterprise network—past, present and future—which will illustrate just why the network is (more than ever) the foundation of IT.

Past

In the 1980s, some of us saw personal computers connected to LANs become popular. In those days, point-to-point leased lines were used to connect LANs that weren’t in the same location, and there were various pricing options available for different connection speeds.

In the early 1990s, Frame Relay service was introduced. It offered lower WAN costs, fewer physical connections (i.e. less to manage) and offered cheaper options for router hardware than the point-to-point technology. These contributing factors made Frame Relay a very compelling option for enterprises wanting to innovate while at the same time sticking to their IT budgets.

Finally, Multiprotocol Label Switching (MPLS) followed Frame Relay, and was designed for carriers to converge voice, video and data on the same network. MPLS gained popularity in the early 2000s, and although both Frame Relay and MPLS are still used, MPLS has emerged as the clear leader in the last several years.

Overall, the network used to be defined by a mostly wired, physical entity controlled by routers and switches. Business connections were based on T1 and ISDN, and Internet connectivity was always backhauled through the data center. Each network device was a piece of company-owned hardware, and applications operated on well-defined ports and protocols. VoIP was used infrequently, and anywhere connectivity—if even a thing—was provided by the low-quality bandwidth of cell-based Internet access.

Present

At present, wireless is becoming ubiquitous—it’s even overtaking wired networks in many instances—and the number of devices wirelessly connecting to the network is exploding (think Internet of Things). It doesn’t end there, though—networks are growing in all directions.

Some network devices are even virtualized, resulting in a complex amalgam of the physical, the virtual and the Internet. Business connections are DSL/cable and Ethernet services, and increased use of cloud services is stretching Internet capacity at remote sites, not to mention opening security and policy issues since it’s not all backhauled through the data center.

BYOD, BYOA, tablets and smartphones are prevalent and are creating bandwidth capacity and security issues. Furthermore, application visibility based on port and protocol is largely impossible due to applications tunneling via HTTP/HTTPS. Lastly, VOIP is common, also imposing higher demands on network bandwidth, and LTE provides high-quality anywhere connectivity.

Future

Over the next year, the majority of companies will continue migrating parts of their infrastructure to the cloud while continuing to maintain some critical services on-premises. This reality, known as the aforementioned hybrid IT, is creating a new language that administrators need to come to understand ahead of the transition, and a new set of skills network administrators need to gain. It is arguably the most important move organizations have made since the days of Frame Relay and MPLS.

Furthermore, as IT shops explore cloud-like offerings, such as rapid deployment of virtual machines, end users increasingly expect an experience similar to that of Microsoft Azure or Amazon Web Services. This means higher expectations for things that IT can’t provide because they don’t have the time or resources to say “yes.” When that happens, internal departments are frequently looking to other non-IT experts within the company who say “yes” (enter: shadow IT) and in the process introduce new vulnerabilities that must be addressed.

In addition, with millions (if not billions) of new devices expected to connect to the network in the coming years thanks to IoT, we are on the verge of another BYOD-like scenario (only bigger) for the network. Although IoT is not a reality for many enterprises yet, it’s being discussed and tested in many environments, and so there is much to do to prepare networks before IoT reaches widespread adoption.

A bit further away than IoT, SDN is still in its infancy in the grand scheme of things, but should be recognized as being on the horizon. The increasing speed of business will require a change to the network, and SDN is a primary component of this change.

Effectively managing IT’s foundation now and in the future

Returning to our initial question—how do you manage the enterprise network to not only meet the challenges at present, but also those on the horizon?—there is really no silver bullet, but there are some overarching tools and best practices to consider that will help.

Automation

Networking is complex and it’s only going to get more so. Tools that help by automating various network management routines can greatly alleviate the burden and free up bandwidth to focus on tasks that absolutely can’t be automated.

Monitoring

Monitoring is key. Constant monitoring of the network will provide a complete view of traffic, plug-ins, wireless heatmaps and the like, making network stabilization achievable amidst growing complexity. Similarly for hybrid IT, monitoring tools arm IT with knowledge about which elements of the infrastructure make sense to migrate, from both a cost and workflow standpoint.

Configuration management

Another tool that is often overlooked is configuration management. If one is able to back-up configurations on a regular basis, one can compare recent with past backups to identify changes in the network, pinpoint anything that is unwarranted and better understand the environment.

Discipline

When it comes to security, there isn’t one tool that will address all risks—there’s a host of them. Instead, administrators should practice discipline and maintain it across all network functions. It’s important to secure the network, be diligent and ensure that attackers don’t have the opportunity to cause additional problems.

Pilot early, pilot often

Hybrid cloud can bring some new costs to the table, so network administrators involved in these discussions early on. Also, they should pilot judiciously.

Treat end users as colleagues and not as customers.

Shadow IT is happening because internal departments think they’ll get shut down by IT. The best approach is to honestly listen to requests, assess the likelihood of being able to complete them and transparently explain why demands can or can’t be met, or what it would take in order to deliver on a request. Be available and be honest, but most importantly, be trustworthy.

Look ahead

Since IoT and SDN are in the more-distant future than other trends, as an industry we don’t yet have all the appropriate tools, strategies and processes in place to alleviate potential issues now (don’t worry, they’ll come). But as always, network administrators should become educated ahead of the trends so they’re equipped to test and prepare. While IoT and SDN will likely come in full effect in as of yet undetermined forms, at least this will create enough knowledge to begin executing.

In conclusion

To reiterate: the network always has been and will continue to be the foundation if IT. It’s more important than ever to ensure optimal network performance. Following these suggestions can help ensure that’s possible now and in the future.

 

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