5 hot issues for network managers in 2023
At the WAN Summit in Frankfurt in March, network managers got up on stage and shared what’s keeping them up at night.
These challenges cut across various industries, company types, and network structures – so the chances are that both you and your customers need to bear them in mind.
Here are the issues that got the most coverage on stage – do you agree?
Every year brings more sustainability requirements for companies. But where does the network fit in?
Gone are the days when sustainability and eco-friendliness only applied to direct polluters. Now, more and more countries are forcing all companies to get their emissions under control – and not just their own emissions, either. Pollution from companies in a business’s supply chain, known as Scope 3 emissions, are coming under the radar too, which means that enterprises will face questions on how green they are from any company they work with.
The network is not an obvious source of emissions, but more and more enterprises are focusing on how to de-risk network sustainability, particularly in the DACH region which was the focus of the WAN Summit Frankfurt.
Panelists from some of the region’s biggest enterprises spoke about the challenges they face in meeting upcoming sustainability requirements. One issue is what to do about high-emission data centres – enterprises could just move to the cloud, but does this just pass the buck to the vendors? Such an approach will no longer going to cut it with Scope 3 under the microscope.
One clear conclusion from those on stage was the need for cooperation across the value chain. There’s no use in three companies in a supply chain striving to meet net zero if a fourth isn’t paying any attention to it – which means the industry needs to act as partners to solve things together, with more accountability, more tough questions, and more open information sharing.
2. Greenfield vs brownfield
When improving your network, should you build on what’s there, or tear it all down and start again?
This was a particularly hot issue in Frankfurt, with several network managers and vendors sharing their experiences of how they’ve gone about it. There was general agreement that certain legacy networks need to be overhauled to meet today’s requirements, but the choice between greenfield or brownfield wasn’t quite so unanimous.
On one hand, greenfield means a company can build an IT system that is suited to their business aims. Moving from a complex legacy system – one that might be the result of historic inter-departmental arguments rather than a clear plan – to a fresh system that does exactly what it’s designed to do would obviously be an ideal scenario. Plenty of companies, particularly in Silicon Valley and the US, have done this to great success.
On the other hand, nothing is ever that simple. Overhauling a complex system, delicately woven together over the years, is easier said than done from a technological standpoint, and there are organisational complexities as well. Network managers at Frankfurt said it wasn’t always clear who exactly in their company would be the person to discuss whether greenfield or brownfield would be the right option
Finally, there’s the human element – if it ain’t broke, people don’t want to fix it. A big change like greenfield takes a lot of courage – ripping a network out and starting again is a big risk, and it’s only natural for network managers to want to protect their jobs if things go wrong. Changing this mindset is a tough ask, and it requires buy-in across the entire organisation, including at board level. This is something else that’s easier said than done, the panelists agreed.
3. Data sovereignty and network fragmentation
When the original open principles of the Internet bump heads with the pressures on governments around the world to ensure sovereignty over their citizens’ data, there is only going to be one winner. This means more and more countries are introducing data sovereignty regulations. If you’re running a global business, how can you keep this manageable?
WAN Summit panelists agreed that the problem is a complex one, but implementing a global SD-WAN or SASE network offers many advantages to meet this kind of challenge. To use the example of China, one vendor shared a story of how one of their clients used SD-WAN to connect in China via local internet and a private backbone, and at the same time used SD-WAN and SASE to connect the Chinese sites to the rest of the network.
However, this approach can mean network fragmentation. Several countries now require data on their citizens to be hosted in that country, and enterprises are having to respond by splitting infrastructure, for example separate cloud infrastructure slides for separate countries. Keeping this under control in a truly global business can require up-skilling for network managers, and the sheer variance of experiences across different industries means SD-WAN and SASE vendors need to know exactly what their customers’ problems are.
4. Enterprise connectivity beyond the corporate office
It’s three years since the working from home exodus of February and March 2020, and corporate life is still more distributed than ever. How has this shifted priorities?
Speakers in Frankfurt shared now-familiar stories of explosive overnight growth in distributed workers – 2,000 home workers turning into 24,000 in the space of a couple of weeks for one enterprise in attendance, for example. Now enjoying the benefit of three years of perspective and adaptation, network managers in various industries discussed the implications of the new normal on how they operate their networks in 2023.
One big factor was cost – it is now hard to justify centralised big pipes, and companies are still in the process of shifting this approach to smaller, more numerous connections. The move from MPLS, a trend that started well before the pandemic, is also still a live issue, with enterprises looking to move to cloud connectivity but meeting roadblocks on the way in the shape of security issues.
Another topic was the shift away from data centres and towards distributed, disaggregated cloud. Several speakers said they are reducing reliance on data centres in order to strip out the focus on location – moving to cloud allows enterprises to achieve optimum connection regardless of location.
5. What’s next for tech?
What are the future areas to keep an eye on?
This question was put to a cross-section of networking professionals, and their answers can be grouped into a few main themes:
- The shift to decentralised networks. This is driven by more remote working on the user side, but also by network optimisation on the enterprise side – one is driving the other.
- Machine learning and AI. An increased role for automation is coming down the pipe in future, according to some of the speakers, who reported that network architects will not be able to perform their tasks and react quickly enough without some level of network automation and zero-touch optimisation.
- Network people becoming software people. This has been happening in telco for quite some time, and now it's going on in enterprise, too. There is a greater demand for people whose skills touch both areas – networking professionals that know software, but also software providers that know their way around a network.
The WAN community will meet up again in London at WAN Summit: Enterprise Networks on 6 June 2023 – get your pass here. If you’re a network manager you can come for free, if not it’s £799+VAT.