The networked world

Network World 30th Anniversary: The digital nervous system of the modern enterprise is driving today’s digital transformations.

networked world connection
Credit: Thinkstock/Pixabay

What would happen if you switched the enterprise to Airplane Mode?

The simple answer: Nothing. Literally. Virtually every corporate process would grind to a halt, which is a simple testament to how reliant the modern organization is on the complex, interwoven, interdependent systems that pervade every fiber of business and society today.

From the key enabler of business agility and transformation to tactical new answers in cloud, mobile computing and analytics, intelligent connectivity has never been a more essential part of business, government and the consumer experience.

“All of these new trends we talk about -- Internet of things, mobility, cloud computing, mesh computing -- are network-centric compute paradigms," says Zeus Kerravala, founder and principal analyst with ZK Research.

Companies are blending digital and physical worlds in order to better serve customers, drive new revenue and streamline operations. Buildings are becoming automated. Factory floor equipment is wired. Healthcare solutions are being built around smartphones, cloud computing and big data.

Scenarios that seemed outrageous a decade ago now seem entirely attainable: "We started demoing, 10 to 15 years ago, cars of the future and multiple Internet devices on your body,” says John Chambers, executive chairman and former CEO of Cisco. “At CES in 2000 we showed a car that would … connect to your coffee shop and have your drink made …. You now are connecting processing capabilities and applications and security and collaboration across multiple networks, from the public cloud all the way to the edge device for entertainment or for business. That's the transition we're in.”

By 2019, there will be 3.2 networked devices or connections per person, up from 2 apiece in 2014, Cisco predicts in its Visual Networking Index, an annual report of Internet and IP trends and statistics. That translates to 24 billion networked devices and connections worldwide, up from 14 billion in 2014, and nearly halfway to the 50 billion total connected devices Cisco expects by 2020. Within the same timeframe, worldwide IP traffic will nearly triple to 168 exabytes per month (an Exabyte is a billion billion), while the number of machine-to-machine interconnections will multiply from 3.3 billion to 10.5 billion.

Software adds elasticity

As far as we have come, we are -- perhaps surprisingly -- still profiting from the network effect, which says, essentially, that value increases as more and more things are connected. From Wikipedia:

“The classic example is the telephone. The more people who own telephones, the more valuable the telephone is to each owner. This creates a positive externality because a user may purchase a telephone without intending to create value for other users, but does so in any case. Online social networks work in the same way, with sites like Twitter and Facebook becoming more attractive as more users join.”

And while the network effect will benefit us for years to come as IoT ramps up, the complexity of the connected world is outpacing our ability to keep up, which is forcing the change to software-controlled everything.

"The last 30 years of networking was all hardware, generally speaking,” says Rohit Mehra, vice president of network infrastructure at IDC. “The next 30 years are going to be all about software."

Prying control out of individual enterprise system components and integrating and centralizing that function will eliminate the need to touch and maintain the piece parts and make it possible to orchestrate and automate the care and supervision of these complex systems programmatically.

At least that’s the promise of disintegration as envisioned in everything from server virtualization to Software Defined Networking and the grander Software Defined Data Center.

“There is a fundamental transition happening now because the status quo is not sustainable,” Nick Lippis, a long time industry observer and co-founder of the Open Networking User Group (ONUG), said in a Network World Special Report on SDN. “The cost to operate networks is too high and growing too fast and you can’t find enough people to manage these things anymore. It’s time for change.”

Where the focus used to be on a box-by-box deployment, it’s now about bringing automation into the network by taking a software-centric approach, Mehra says. "How you manage, how you troubleshoot, how you orchestrate -- software is going to be the glue that will put it all together and enable IT to use their cycles on more strategic tasks.”

John Chambers, Cisco executive chairman and former CEO

The shift is significant.

"The software-defined revolution is probably the single largest transition the industry has ever faced,” Mehra says. “What we are seeing is a completely new way of looking at networking, where you actually lead with software, and that's what drives the automation, the flexibility, and the virtualization that goes with it."

That flexibility, of course, is needed to keep pace with adoption of technologies such as cloud computing and virtualization that are making the compute and applications layers more agile. “You can’t have agile IT without bringing in the network,” Kerravala says.

Server virtualization has provided both a road map and an impetus for network virtualization, Mehra says. “All the associated increases in traffic, increases in workloads, increases in applications, all the associated security and vulnerability issues that come as a result of virtualization, need to be handled by the network,” Mehra says. “If we didn't virtualize, it wouldn't happen. We wouldn’t be able to do any of the things that IT is being tasked with."

Major advances in chip sets and semiconductors from Intel, Broadcom and others also have been invaluable, Mehra says.

"Today when we virtualize some functions, whether it's load balancing or a policy engine or whatever we can do in an SDN construct, we can do it because we can virtualize those functions without giving up performance. We couldn't do that 10 years or even six years ago,” Mehra says. "We are in the middle of this software-defined revolution, but it was made possible by multiple pieces all falling in place: advancements on the semiconductor side, advancements with other hardware, and advancements related to how we can consume software in the networking world."

This coalescence of new developments is, in fact, what is enabling the Internet of Things: advances in sensors, in wireless networking, in software control, in distributed intelligence, and in big data tools that make it possible to extract actionable intelligence from a plethora of data points.

"We talk about IoT as though it’s the new animal in the zoo, but really it is evolutionary," Mehra says. What’s different today is the quality of sensors and gateways at the edge, which have benefitted from increased compute power and greater intelligence. “They can decide: ‘Does this need to go back all the way into the cloud or into my data center? Or can I make a decision here, right at the edge, and save myself the trouble of sending so many megabytes of data all the way back?’ That level of intelligence now exists at the edge, which was not feasible even five or seven years ago,” Mehra says. "The ability to take data and feed it up the value chain -- we didn’t have that some years ago."

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