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How CIOs are shaping their networks for a digital future

How CIOs are shaping their networks for a digital future

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CIOs and teams responsible for network and security architecture should understand how well-prepared their organisations are in comparison to their peers, says Eyad Shihabi, Vice President, Middle East, Africa and Turkey, BT. But, he says, with the right information, a well-prepared CIO can harness the flood of data to create new business opportunities, deploy a network and security apparatus that drives differentiation in the marketplace and ride the wave of progress to a brighter networked future.

Towards future networks

An organisation’s network is often the ‘long pole in the tent’ – the thing that takes longest to adapt to changing business requirements. That’s because networks are inherently complex.  The entire business depends on them working properly – and configuring and managing them effectively takes deep expertise.

What companies really want is the ability to meet the business objectives of their users and internal stakeholders as quickly and efficiently as possible, while simultaneously assuring the reliability of their day-to-day operations. And although businesses welcome the opportunity to reduce costs, they see agility and flexibility as bigger, more liberating benefits.

Organisations are also looking to sweat their current investments. But their networks are clearly feeling the strain from the rapid growth in data volumes, as well as from increased use of cloud applications. Networks are also being disrupted by more mobile, agile and flexible working.

As a consequence, businesses are beginning to revisit their networking strategies and seek alternative technologies to help them transform. For now, though, they are in almost all cases taking an evolutionary, step-by-step approach rather than risk a premature ‘big bang’.

For example, organisations are increasing their use of APM and rolling out overlay SD WAN networks and/or NFV. Typically, they view these technologies as a way of diverting more network traffic securely and automatically over public Internet links as part of a hybrid WAN, in order to relieve pressure on their core networks.

Rate of adoption

Organisations are typically testing these new approaches through proof of concept and trialling before deploying them at scale, both to prove they can deliver real benefits and also to mitigate the risks of change to the business.

To ascertain the scale of adoption, we asked respondents when their company plans on making network changes to deploy SD-WAN, APM or NFV services. The percentage of companies that have already invested is low (less than 2% across all these technologies). However, the proportion that has already deployed a hybrid WAN approach is much higher, at 23%.

And despite the generally low adoption rates, it’s clear these technologies are on organisations’ radars and under serious consideration. A majority of respondents (just over 61%) said they were looking at NFV as a part of their network roadmap. Within two years, almost a third (31%) will have gone through a proof of concept and almost as many (30%) expect to have fully deployed the technology.

It’s a similar story with APM.  More than 60% of respondents have it on their roadmap, with 29% and 31% expecting to have completed proof of concept and full deployment (respectively) within two years.

SD-WAN isn’t quite as far along the adoption curve. Just over a quarter of respondents (27%) are considering how to integrate the technology into their estate, with 14% saying they will have undertaken a proof of concept, and 13% a full deployment, within two years.

What companies want

Organisations seem keen to understand how these new technologies can help them, but business imperatives dominate their day-to-day thinking. When asked what was most important to them they perhaps unsurprisingly placed service performance in pole position (74%), followed by service availability (70%), ongoing customer support (57%) and delivery and provisioning of services (46%).

While a significant proportion of organisations are looking to trial and deploy new networking technologies, the survey suggests they may face a challenge in terms of in-house skills. Levels of network engineering skills to deal with hybrid WAN, SD-WAN and NFV are, on average, 10-15% lower than required.

This, of course, isn’t surprising given these technologies’ current levels of maturity. However, the gap will need to be filled if businesses want to pursue their networking roadmap successfully, with effective delivery and management.

Interestingly, a quarter of respondents said they would be very likely to adopt new vendors when current equipment comes up for its cyclical refresh, with a further 40% saying they would at least consider them. Again, this seems to suggest there is a growing appetite among organisations to look at new networking technologies and approaches.

What companies need

For all organisations, the security of networks is of paramount concern. But the traditional approach – using a private network to carry enterprise data traffic between corporate data centres with a few tightly-secured gateways onto the wider Internet – has limitations and is increasingly seen as a bottleneck.

The need to route more traffic over Internet connections fundamentally changes security considerations. When you deploy these new networking technologies, you increase the potential points of entry for attackers. In this environment an organisation can no longer just rely on deployment and management of firewalls and firewall policy. What’s needed instead is a new, multi-layered approach to security.

Businesses recognise this, and survey respondents say they need ‘market leading security’ when deploying these technologies. It was cited as the most important feature in both NFV and hybrid WAN deployments (by 71% and 66% of respondents respectively) and was considered the second most important feature for SD-WAN (with 52% placing it top).

Equally, though, despite the increased attack surface, virtualised networks ultimately improve security since they allow policy to be applied network-wide automatically through software. Indeed, when asked about their key drivers for looking at specific network services, security came in the top three for all the technologies mentioned.

It was the number one driver for hybrid WAN (above increased application visibility and reducing overheads). It was number two for SD-WAN (after speed and flexibility) and NFV (after better bandwidth utilisation). And for APM it came in third (after better bandwidth utilisation and speed and flexibility).

Conclusion

New networking technologies have huge potential to improve performance, boost efficiency and agility, as well as easing visibility and control.  We believe organisations should proactively evaluate, run proof of concept trials and build these technologies into their networking roadmap, but they must be clear about how and when to take advantage of them.

Getting the right balance of innovation and risk for your business and bearing in mind the approach, skills, services and help available to you is key.  And of course, any deployment needs to tie in with your business strategy and requirements, and the demands of Digital Transformation.

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