The role of the WAN has changed, causing companies to rethink their network strategies.
I read an interesting eBook on emerging WAN trends from ThousandEyes, a San Francisco-based network intelligence company acquired by Cisco in 2020. In this article I’ll summarize the takeaways I found most interesting – the book offers insight on the future of networking.
Titled Five Emerging WAN Trends That Will Shape NetOps Strategy, the eBook opens with a discussion of the increasing importance of WANs. ThousandEyes identified key developments, including:
- Hybrid or software-defined WANs (SD-WANs).
- The increasing use of cloud-based services and SaaS (Software as a Service).
- The adoption of advanced security techniques like SASE (Secure Access Service Edge) and Zero Trust.
A decade ago, many C-suite executives considered the WAN a commodity. Today, my research shows that 71% of CxOs believe the network is strategic to the business. This makes sense as all emerging trends, such as hybrid work, cloud, mobility, and IoT are network centric. In some sense, a business can only perform as well as the WAN enables it to.
Let’s get into the five trends now.
Trend One: WAN Backbone, With the Internet
I’ve said for a while that WANs must be more than pipes. This eBook confirms that view: the WAN needs to be a distributed ecosystem that works alongside and with the Internet. This kind of change puts ITOps teams in an unfamiliar position—they’ll have less control over digital environments.
Enterprise use of public clouds has grown considerably and shows no sign of slowing. The need for seamless connectivity has spurred a shift from MPLS backhauling to direct internet access and SD-WAN.
This comes down to user experience and expectations—something we look at in a later trend. The key is that infrastructure and operations leaders are out of their comfort zones, and existing networks may not be capable enough. So a good relationship with a service provider is essential.
Trend Two: Applications Become More Distributed
Where an application resides doesn’t matter if it just works whenever a user needs access. In the not-too-distant past, monolithic application architectures reigned supreme. One server or cluster could house an app for an entire global enterprise—laggy networks be damned.
The eBook notes, “The rapid evolution of applications has created opportunities for businesses to develop new and improved apps with faster performance.”
With distributed architectures, app developers must test more comprehensively—and build testing into architecture creation. I agree with the eBook’s view that NetDevOps will usher in closed-loop automation and service delivery will become the norm.
Trend Three: Greater Need to Automate Architecture
Automation has become almost a cliché. But the fun the naysayers have had obscures how it can help a WAN or IT department function more efficiently.
Boilerplate policies provided out of the box by network operators are inadequate, so the eBook notes, “IT is transitioning to automating policies to accommodate business needs and user experience. Their goal is for a greater correlation between application architecture and a dynamic network, and this work is developing the foundation for enabling intelligent network automation.”
Gartner says that 70% of organizations will implement infrastructure automation by 2025 (up from 20% in 2021). I think that figure understates the opportunity, as IT departments and network operations are racing to continuously improve, to meet user expectations, and stay competitive.
Trend Four: Seamless Experiences for Distributed Workforce
Not long ago, user experience didn’t even crack the top 10 of most IT departments’ priorities. The idea was that users would adapt to the way IT works, not the other way around.
But the rise of personal devices that focused on the user experience first and foremost gradually changed that calculus—dragging IT kicking and screaming into the future. Now user experience is paramount.
The eBook notes, “Everything changed with the pandemic, as it created momentum behind hybrid work, which places greater importance on user expectations and digital equity.”
A key to this trend is changing the way IT help desks work. Instead of waiting for issues to crop up and then fighting fires, help desks need to anticipate issues before they happen so the user experience remains seamless and consistent.
I would have ranked this as the first trend because it underscores the shift of priorities in IT. Plus, this is how users grade IT and network operations. All the whiz-bang tech doesn’t mean anything if it doesn’t work.
Trend Five: User Expectations Require Continuous Improvement
Users are more dispersed than ever—and, despite all the calls to return to the office, workers will continue to work from all over the world and expect access to networks and apps no matter where they are.
So, with user expectations so high, businesses will have to improve networks continuously.
The eBook notes, “Continuous improvement is critical in delivering an outstanding user experience because it helps ensure that the right service is provided at the right time and place.”
As with all statements like that, there’s a caveat. As companies race to meet expectations, they’re deploying new tech, including LEO satellites, 5G networks, and Wi-Fi 6. These new technologies require new infrastructure and monitoring. All of this could combine to complicate the delivery of improved user experiences.
Traditional SLAs based on bits, bytes, and loss are not enough. They’ll need to measure tangible benefits to the business that can be monitored and verified.
Next Steps: the WAN and Network Operations
The above trends are interesting shifts to follow. Some of the actions to take are obvious, while others might not be so clear. The eBook makes five recommended next steps. These include:
- Have a strategic plan for driving digital agility.
- Put user experience and Internet unpredictability at the heart of network automation design.
- Develop a view of baseline performance by auditing critical environments and applications.
- Foster a culture of collaboration and address evolving workflows.
- Ensure that solutions can scale, integrate, and support evolving operational processes across the digital business.
The eBook has more details on each of these recommendations.
In summary, today’s WAN is nothing like a decade ago or even five years ago. The WAN carries mission-critical information, connects us to cloud apps, enables us to connect socially, even when physically distant, and is the engine that runs businesses. Businesses need to re-think how they build, operate and manage their WANs.