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Network Modernization Planning, 2022 Edition

How are we still talking about network modernization in 2022, you might ask? That is a fair question. The simple answer is that most companies and enterprises have yet to begin the process of modernization in earnest and instead continue down the well-worn path of early 2000s networking.

In some respects, this is understandable: network modernization upends how networks are built and operated from the models that have largely been the same for more than 20 years. It requires real work—as well as staff upskilling—to design and implement a modernized network, and there’s also a fear of the unknown.

Network operations professionals understand the heavy loads of work and constant pressure from the business to provide a stable network infrastructure 7x24x365. There is a general preference for sticking with what is well understood and familiar rather than venturing into the unknown and taking on risk for the promise of something better.

While these sentiments are completely understandable, we are at an inflection point in our discipline where the benefits of network modernization vastly outweigh the transformational efforts and costs: these platforms are mature and feature-rich, brimming with real-world capabilities that were previously out of reach or very fragile and complex to implement. By continuing to delay modernization, network operations staff and organizations are paying a real opportunity cost, as well as bearing a higher level of risk on an ongoing basis. Network modernization is an eventuality—it is going to happen sooner or later. Now is the time to take the initiative.

So, what does network modernization mean for you, and what does that look like in 2022?

The takeaway is that new software systems and platforms allow us to abstract much of the physical network topology and management away, allowing technologists to focus on using the network as a canvas to describe the types of flows, services, behaviors and policies needed. Expressing these intents is the definition of “Software-Defined” networking. Along with these new systems, some of the underlying network topologies and designs have been optimized and standardized to provide the scale, performance and flexibility desired.

Make no mistake, there is still a mountain of complexity underneath all the lovely abstractions, and just like your car—simply operated but intricately run—it pays to understand at some level how everything is designed and built for when things do not behave as expected. Yes, there is still going to be a problem from time to time—sorry!

What network modernization translates to for you and your company depends on where in the network you are looking.

Given that the Software-Defined infrastructure approach was born in the data center from the server and storage virtualization, Software-Defined Data Center (SDDC) may be the most well established and widespread of the Software-Defined Networking (SDN) family. In most all cases, this takes the form of a standardized spine-leaf network topology as it is massively scalable and performant, using BGP-EVPN for the control plane, VXLAN for the data plane and a software controller to orchestrate provisioning, deployment, mobility and location services. This effectively relieves you of many of the Layer-2 headaches and limitations of the past and delivers the functionality and agility your server team needs.

SD-WAN is perhaps equally well-known to SDDC, providing WAN transport independence. This allows you to use whatever transport(s) are available and appropriate for a given site or application, which can reduce to hours or days the time needed to bring a new site online. The software controllers that enable SD-WAN also provide rich functionality in setting performance and application routing behavior, QoS, resilience, orchestrated/templated change deployments and Zero-Touch provisioning, just to highlight as few capabilities.

Rounding out the Software-Defined family are SD-Campus and SD-Branch. SD-Campus is somewhat similar to SDDC in that it builds a fabric network, often using a spine-leaf design, and provides similar mobility and location services, while also extending this same functionality to the wireless network for treating the campus consistently. SD-Branch tends more to things like "branch-in-a-box” or simple orchestration and automation.

Underlying and interwoven through all these SDN technologies are:

  • Orchestration and automation—for everything from deployments (with rollback capabilities), to software updates and patching, to auditing and compliance validation

  • Unprecedented visibility—through streaming telemetry and enhanced correlation and reporting to provide meaningful insights and expedite issue and incident identification and resolution, with some systems offering Artificial Intelligence capabilities to identify potential remediation steps

  • Integrated pervasive security—security at all levels, from endpoint to server to cloud

Taken individually, any of the above represent a huge step forward for many organizations and can save hundreds of hours of labor, while reducing the potential for human error and freeing up those humans to do more meaningful work for the business!

We have had to wait a long time for a cycle of innovation, but it is finally here, and these systems and products are mature and stable, ready to take your network forward for the next 20+ years. Now is the time to level up.

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About the author:
Sean Mathias is a technology expert and problem solver focused on network architecture, systems engineering and cloud infrastructure. He helps companies to realize real value from technology by collaborating with them to understand the needs of their business, and develop an architecture and solutions that solve those problems.