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Remote working assumes new significance

Almost overnight, COVID-19 forced enterprises to change the way they provide and protect network services. It suddenly became necessary to turn to technologies and methods that promised to ensure reliable network operation, maximize staff performance, and maintain strong security.

The coronavirus outbreak has provided a vivid yardstick of how digital networks perform under extreme stress, in ways that will have lasting implications for the way infrastructure is built and managed well, after the emergency has subsided.

With employees moving from central offices to their homes, IT teams have stepped up to make the transition to remote work as seamless as possible. From ensuring that employees have up-to-date technology at home to balancing the network security needs of enterprises with the troubleshooting needs of employees, IT has become the unsung hero for the remote workforce.

A number of networking technologies have proven to help IT teams during these unprecedented times, most notably AI. AI can have multiple functions, such as proactively adjusting the network or optimizing the environment to minimize congestion. The vast amount of data flowing through thousands of remote locations is often overwhelming, so this is where enterprises see the most value of data science and AI in networking. By leveraging AI, IT teams can leverage a solution that detects anomalies, proactively performs root cause analysis and gets to the source of network problems, faster and more importantly, remotely.

There is no doubt that we have entered a new era in the way we work. Many enterprises are planning to continue maintaining a partially remote workforce, even after employees start to return to the office. But while this means that we will see more satellite and distributed offices, most employees will not be expected to deploy a security endpoint in their home office.

A sharp uptick in adoption of SASE

Because it’s a cloud service, some enterprise are finding that SASE (secure access service edge) can be readily scaled up and scaled down and billed based on usage. As a result, it can be an attractive option in a time of rapid change. With SASE, enterprise IT staff have fewer chores related to deployment, monitoring and maintenance and can be assigned higher level tasks.

SASE combines SD-WAN capabilities with security and delivers them as a service. The WAN side of SASE relies on capabilities supplied by entities including SD-WAN providers, carriers, content-delivery networks, network-as-a-service providers, bandwidth aggregators and networking equipment vendors. The security side relies on cloud-access security brokers, cloud secure web gateways, zero-trust network access, firewall-as-a-service, web-API-protection-as-a-service, DNS and remote browser isolation.

The coronavirus pandemic has accelerated some companies’ plans to adopt SASE. Last summer, Gartner estimated SASE adoption at less than 1 percent of enterprises and said it would take five to 10 years before the technology reaches mainstream. But today, SASE is one of the main topics of client interest, according to the research firm. Gartner had coined the term SASE to describe a technology category that converges network and security services, including SD-WAN, secure web gateway (SWG), cloud access security broker (CASB), DNS protection, and cloud-based firewall. COVID-19 has boosted interest in SASE as enterprises scramble to support a suddenly remote workforce. The surge in telework has taxed legacy network architectures that depend on traffic being routed through the enterprise data center for inspection. With SASE, access decisions are based on user identity and enforced at the endpoint, while policies are centrally defined and managed in the cloud.

The sudden surge in remote workers could boost SASE sales over SD-WAN. SD-WAN technology was just beginning to take off: sales grew by 64 percent to over USD 1 billion in 2019, according to Dell’Oro Group. It makes more sense for remote workers needing SaaS access to be directed to a cloud-based SASE solution – using zero trust network access – where security can be applied, and from where employees can access the SaaS applications they need. All without ever burdening the enterprise infrastructure and suffering the performance problems inherent in that approach.

Where does that leave SD-WAN technology? Given that the pandemic has shifted attention from site-to-site performance to more secure remote working, a good guess is that SD-WAN will be put on the back burner by many network professionals, for now at least. COVID-19 may have created a major bump in the road but the fundamental drivers for SD-WAN adopted have not changed, so sooner or later it will be back on the agenda. Once work from home solutions are incorporated into SD-WAN at a reasonable cost, then it will likely be full steam ahead for the technology once more.

The cloud has never been more critical
COVID-19 has accelerated the adoption of cloud infrastructure and services. Until now, high-speed broadband was primarily focused on urban areas where there is a high density of businesses that require enterprise-grade connectivity. Service providers and cloud providers targeting businesses could typically position their offering around those urban areas – the cloud was the core, and the edge of the network was a small portion of total business.

Now, the edge of the enterprise network is needed to be everywhere, remote locations, suburban homes and rural locations too. This has led to increased latency and a greater need for compute power, capacity, and storage closer to the new edge, where content is consumed. The tech and telco industries had been working for years to expand their edge offerings – now they rapidly scaled up. A cloud-first work model has been developed that could last for decades.

The new edge on which physicians, radiologists, educators, entertainers are working requires the network connection to work seamlessly with cloud compute and cloud storage. And as close to end-users as possible. As the latency finds itself getting reduced, one can safely expect to see hundreds of thousands of scaled-down data centers emerge at this new edge of the network, to form the Edge Cloud.

The pandemic has forced us to completely reconsider the workplace and what that means for the network. By bringing the cloud edge closer to users, where content is both created and consumed, storage, compute, and connect resources can be more efficiently utilized. And providers will ensure the work experience becomes seamless, whether we are working at home, in an office, or on the road.

The cloud enables business processes to continue remotely, while also offering opportunities for platform shifts and massive disruption. The pandemic is imposing new demands and change in data strategies and for some reshaping the very architecture, to architect them in ways that provide elasticity, scalability, economies of scale, and agility. Cloud architecture could inspire organizations to adapt and uncover new means to compete in these shaky times.

At the moment, as per Ventana Research, sixty percent of data movement is on-premises to on-premises; another 25 percent are going one way or the other: cloud to on-premises or on-premises to cloud, and about 15 percent were doing cloud-to-cloud. In many instances, the introduction of the cloud is not to replace existing systems. Organizations look to the cloud to implement greenfield opportunities and to explore what they could do with the cloud and which existing systems might be migrated to the cloud. Financial and healthcare organizations naturally may have policies or regulations that restrict from using cloud for certain data and systems.

Security will remain a priority

Another huge impact has been on security spending as IT departments rushed to secure these remote workers. What’s more, this COVID-19-related spending is unlikely to abate anytime soon. Security is ultimately an exercise in risk management, and spending has to be prioritized so as to bring the big risks associated with home working down to acceptable levels. According to management consultancy McKinsey, home workers’ security will remain a priority at least until the end of the year and perhaps well into the first half of 2020.

But here’s the problem. Most companies’ revenues and profits have taken a hit, and the first to be cut is generally the security budget. And these would zero in on advanced long-term security projects around security orchestration, automation and response (SOAR) systems, behavioral analytics, and AI-assisted detection systems. And according to Gartner, spending on more familiar networking security equipment including firewall equipment and intrusion detection and prevention systems (IDPS) will be most severely impacted by spending cuts this year. Given that the hackers are not going anywhere, in fact quite the opposite, IT departments will now need bigger budgets, not smaller ones, if they are to continue to prioritize pandemic-related spending while controlling all the other security risks at manageable levels.

The definition of business agility seems to have changed. It is no longer just about pursuing new opportunities, building code quickly, or ensuring disaster recovery. With millions of workers booted out of their offices and reliant on home Internet connections to stay connected and productive, the very nature of agility has taken on new dimensions as people and organizations discovered how well, or not, they were able to respond to unanticipated challenges.

CTOs agree
The global pandemic has changed the role of the network and networking technology from being an enabler for business to being the foundation on which all businesses,schools and homes run. That’s not just an idle observation – that’s also the view of the top networking industry CTOs.

At the annual Interop conference held, the CTOs of the largest and most influential networking vendors came together in a panel to talk about the future of networking.

John Apostolopoulos, VP & CTO at Cisco, said the pandemic has helped change the mindset that many have about IT. It’s now about how, under challenging circumstances, IT can make changes to help enable networks meet the demands of remote work. Raj Yavatkar, CTO at Juniper Networks, and Partha Narasimhan, CTO of HPE/Aruba, emphasized that now more than ever the network is the basis not just of IT but of business continuity.

While security has always had a role in networking, moving forward that role will become even more integrated than before, according to all three CTOs. With everyone working from home, the complexity of securing distributed organizations is exponentially more difficult than when everyone is inside an office. With security integrated into the fabric of the network, that same network that enables connectivity can and should enable secured connectivity.

The Growing Role of SD-WAN. Was also discussed at the conference. Before the pandemic, and likely continuing after it’s over, SD-WAN has been a hot topic of conversation.

Yavatkar said he’s seen a lot of hype around SD-WAN and in his view, it’s a technology that’s still in its first generation. Over the next few years, Yavatkar expects that we’ll see a second generation of SD-WAN technology that provides a more integrated approach that combines security, networking, access and even artificial intelligence-powered insights.

Apostolopoulos sees SD-WAN evolving in the coming years to being more about enabling end-to-end application delivery and experiences. It’s an idea that has a lot of value given the extremely distributed nature of application deployments and microservices today.

Narasimhan observed that in the last few years there has been a lot of consolidation in the SD-WAN space and the expects there will be further consolidation in the years ahead. Ultimately he expects that there will only be five or six important SD-WAN vendors in the market.

How Networking will be Measured in the Future. While conversations about SD-WAN, security and remote work are interesting, perhaps the most insightful part of the CTO panel was about how networking – and by extension networking professionals – will be judged and evaluated in the future.

There was a time when the nuts and bolts, the so-called plumbing of the network, was what networking was all about. Networking conversations and professionals had the job of learning all the nuances of protocols and configuration.

The network today is more of a given, a foundation, and networking is judged by what it enables. It’s about the quality of experience. “And that will keep pressure on networking vendors to continue evolving regardless of what the future of work looks like,” concluded Sean Michael Kerner, IT consultant and technology enthusiast.

Beyond the pandemic

Although COVID-19’s initial impact has gradually faded for most organizations, now is not the time for a collective sigh of relief or to take a breather. Organizations must not only assess and plan for the next unprecedented incident, but for much more common occurrences that could impact an organization’s ability to continue its ongoing operations.

The value of operating infrastructure off-premise is being realized. Beyond the emergency action needed at the start of the pandemic, many organizations have turned to mitigating risk through flexibility of infrastructure. The long-term plans may include use of public cloud, mobile computing, and moving to 5G wireless network. That allows for ubiquity operating any place at any time, which can be easier for born-in-the-cloud companies, Large enterprises likely cannot move as nimbly, but organizations that embrace flexibility may be able to recover faster than competitors as they move at the speed of need.

Enterprises considering digital transformation prior to the pandemic might have only wanted to move up to 30-40 percent of their existing infrastructure to the public cloud. That reluctance is falling away. Organizations try to migrate as much as they can outside on-prem systems as quarantines persist.

After the shockwave of a pandemic and related shutdowns, it’s helpful to assess just what happened in IT departments over the last nine months. An annual survey of CIOs and IT leaders conducted by the Harvey Nash Group and KPMG provides some real perspective on the whirlwind that has been our year so far. A total of 4,219 IT executives responded to the survey.

Companies spent the equivalent of around USD15 billion extra a week on technology in those first few months to enable safe and secure home working. The spending represented one of the biggest surges in technology investment in history. Now that those investments have been made and thousands of employees are equipped to work from home, it’s more of a steady state. Much of those early investments went to hardware such as laptops. But just because the emergency hardware spending is over does not mean that technology spending will be cut. Technology has become the most important part of the business; it is building more of a collaboration or cohesiveness between the business and the technology.

The report by Harvey Nash-KPMG indicates that IT budget increases in the next 12 months will vary among industries. For instance, among power and utilities, 52 percent of companies are expecting an IT budget increase, closely followed by government at 51 percent, healthcare at 49 percent, and technology at 46 percent. Among telecom, business and professional services, retail, and financial services, 44 percent of companies are expecting an IT budget increase. It’s not a surprise to see leisure at the bottom, with only 26 percent expecting an IT budget increase. And within the technology investments, leading the pack are security and privacy at 47 percent, customer experience and engagement at 44 percent, and infrastructure/cloud at 35 percent. Surprisingly, automation only hit 29 percent, and systems of insight such as business intelligence got only 25 percent. For organizations looking to save costs through use of these technologies, that may not be happening with any new investments. At the bottom of the list were finance and accounting (8 percent), systems of record (9 percent), supply chain and logistics (9 percent), employee engagement and HR (10 percent), marketing and sales (15 percent). Investment in security is at the top of the list perhaps because 4 out of 10 organizations say they have already experienced a security breach during the COVID-19 crisis.

Paradoxically, the pandemic may actually lead to better and safer enterprise networks. Many engineers have proposed great modernization and transformation ideas for years, but have been stymied by technology, vendors, internal politics, or budgets. Suddenly they are getting clear direction, coupled with the authority to execute!

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