Offices. Hospitals. Factories. Hotels. Universities. Sports arenas. In my job, I talk to the people around the world who run technology for all of these types of operations. They tell me that more wireless devices than ever are joining their networks, and that if they have no Wi-Fi, they have no business. Without a network that’s up 24/7, a hospital’s critical medical device might not function. A robot in a warehouse won’t be able to receive commands and a critical process will grind to a halt. A point of sale tablet in a stadium won’t be able to process a fan’s purchase, and perishable demand will be lost.
The network, in short, is critical infrastructure. And the kind of network we’re relying on is changing. In the past, for devices that needed constant connectivity, we’d wire them to our core. Today, our critical devices are just as likely to be wireless: the cart with medical equipment, the roving inventory-picker robot, the handheld ticket scanner. These devices can no longer connect using “best effort” wireless as they might have in the past. The wireless network has to be as rock-solid as wired. It has to provide uninterrupted and unplugged access for users and devices.
Businesses need their IT professionals to understand these issues today, as well as challenges they will be facing in the near future. Having planners who see into the future is one key way businesses stay agile and competitive. So when I speak with IT professionals we often discuss the need to plan for a few key trends.
Trend 1: Expanding Number of Devices Connected
It’s not just that every employee of a business has a device (or two) that they connect to our networks. Today, every single person visiting a business comes with several devices, and the number of devices per person (phone, watch, headphones) continues to grow.
But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Everything today is getting connected. From light bulbs to medical diagnostic equipment, there is hardly a single new piece of infrastructure that is not connected today, or that won’t be tomorrow. IT staffs are not getting larger to match this growth. For IT to provide uninterrupted connectivity to all these devices, simplicity is the key to scaling up.
Trend 2: Reliability and Security
As much as businesses are eager to adopt the latest technology in their business, the networks must be reliable and safe – all the time, no matter the situation. And the more connections we open up, the more exposure a network has. The major security threats today are also different from what we were protecting from just a few years ago. Today, data theft isn’t the only challenge. We need to protecting networks and devices from outright sabotage. Ransomware is now used to take down businesses. The impact can be brutal. The NotPetya attack cost businesses over $10 billion in 2017, and some of the hardest-hit companies were completely compromised in under four minutes.
Additionally, the bulk of incremental devices landing on the network are unmanaged, not laptops or phones that are managed by IT. This means classical pieces of the security kill chain – endpoint tools such as antivirus software, MDM (Mobile Device Management), and EDR (Endpoint Detection and Response) – don’t come into play. The increase in device and OS diversity can also lead to a dramatic rise in alerts from legacy network security tools, making them essentially ineffective for SecOps departments already suffering from alert fatigue. Finally, unmanaged devices can also be weaponized by attackers; they’re often highly vulnerable to botnets, like Mirai, which continue to rapidly evolve.
Trend 3: Immersive and Real-time Computing
The way we interact with technology is evolving, too. Since computing first became part of business, we have moved from batch processing, to command lines, to interactive experiences on our computers and handheld devices. We are now moving into the era of truly immersive computing, in which users will expect real-time and high definition imagery as part of the interface. This means not just pervasive use of high definition collaboration tools (like Cisco’s own Telepresence products) but also expanded use of augmented reality and virtual reality in a variety of business applications. These applications need both high bandwidth and ultra-low latency for their real-time experiences. The same goes for machines that are making real time decisions. Increasingly the expectation is that all of this is achievable over both wired and wireless networks.
Our networks need to support new levels of speed, reliability, and scale. That’s what we’ve been building. We have been working hard on our entire suite of networking products, from Wi-Fi ASICs to core switches, to our software fabric that ties it all together. We believe that when you can work with the network holistically, and not just as series of parts connected through patchwork, you can raise the value of networking and business overall.
The fundamentals of network design in the coming years are anchored in three architectural principles to serve the needs I outlined above. These design points are: Wireless First; Cloud Driven; and Data Optimized.
Every part of our networking stack has to be built for always-on wireless. This means that the entire network, from switch to device, needs to be built to support full-time, uninterrupted access for all users. High-availability systems need to be everywhere, not just in the core of the campus network. Technology like cold and hot patching, perpetual POE, non-stop forwarding (NSF), automated rapid and rolling upgrades, and much more need to be built into every applicable layer of the campus and branch network.
Building wireless-first networks means we no longer think of wired and wireless as two distinct systems. We need to consider the impact of wireless technologies – like new Wi-Fi 6 access points that support four times the bandwidth of current models – at the same time as we plan our wired systems. Wireless, of course, aggregates to wired, and the wired network must also evolve. Technology like multi-gigabit ethernet must be driven into the access layer, which in turn drives higher bandwidth needs at the aggregation and core layers.
Even more importantly, to securely connect and protect the flood of managed and unmanaged devices on our networks, and to manage it all, we must treat the network as a one single software-defined fabric. This allows us to segment the network, and make sure that if one device gets infected by malware it cannot easily spread to other devices.
The cloud has helped businesses achieve great feats at grand scales. It offers the same potential for network management and efficiency.
A cloud-driven network infrastructure provides new capabilities to on-prem network equipment, most importantly by giving your the network access to the continuous improvement inherent in cloud services. When we leverage the cloud we can transform how we operate a network, with better support, better IT processes, and by applying data insights.
Cloud-driven network management also lets Cisco work alongside IT pros. We can work proactively and in real-time when there are issues to address, instead of waiting for a support call. Insights that we gather from cloud-driven peer networks globally enables us to act more dynamically to keep networks functioning at peak efficiency – and makes dynamic, business-led improvements easier as well.
This architectural principle gives IT pros a lot of flexibility. Enterprises can choose what data they share; whether their controller and management layers are on-prem or off; and they can choose how they engage with us for support and consultation.
We can use the data and analytics from our networks not just to improve our networks themselves (making them more secure and more efficient), but to serve our business outcomes. This is the most exciting area of growth in networking. It’s ultimately what networks are for: Driving business forward.
We start with taking the reactive model of IT support and putting it on a new footing: proactive, based on next-generation analytics. We now leverage data to resolve issues before they impact business, or even before a user calls in a problem. If a failure does sneak through, analytics can pinpoint the cause and scope quickly, to speed remediation. We can determine with confidence when an issue is network-related and when it isn’t – speeding up the mean time to innocence for network professionals, which can be key to their career success.
Our businesses operations themselves also generate valuable data. For example, nearly every single person today is carrying a mobile device that will be noticed by a businesses’ wireless access points. Data from these interactions can be applied to all sorts of issues that go straight to the bottom line. We can help a business determine where its customers are and how they flow through their facilities. These insights lead to better customer engagements, and they improve the ROI of a network.
The same technology is being used in medical and industrial facilities now to make sure that high-value equipment is where it’s needed and is staged appropriately when it’s not in use. Solutions like these go straight to business outcomes.
We can also use network data to improve our security posture. We use participating customers’ network telemetry, along with our global threat intelligence, to discern patterns in network traffic that indicate the presence of malware within encrypted traffic. We give enterprises a layer of insight into encrypted traffic — without decrypting it. Based on this posture they can choose to deny this traffic, or selectively decrypt it. They can balance security with privacy, and control for the cost of decrypting traffic at scale.
In sum, we feed data from all network sources into analytics engines and machine learning systems, and this leads to insights we apply to security, IT operations, and business outcomes.
The way forward
This outcome-driven architecture is what we have been building for the last two years. It’s why we are all-in on intent-based networking. For unplugged and uninterrupted networking, we need our systems to be wireless first, cloud-driven, and data-optimized.
April 29, 2019