Since the 1960s, enterprise computer networks have made leaps and bounds to provide the unprecedented connectivity we enjoy today. The advancement of networking technology has come to define not only the way people do business, but also their daily lives. Today, the network edge is dominated by mobile-centric wireless local area networks (LANs), with Wi-Fi and Ethernet still being preferred by end users.

Clearly, networking technology continues to evolve aggressively, and understanding what’s on the horizon is crucial to staying competitive, relevant, and connected in an increasingly networked world.

Technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML), cloud, 5G, edge computing, Internet of Things (IoT) and many more continue to play a role increasingly influential in the future of networks. Some of the expected results of the impact of these technologies, including factors such as higher IT network operating costs and remote and hybrid working, are explored below.

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The autonomous network

Network automation promises to replace most of the tedious tasks performed manually by network engineers. This allows these professionals to devote more time and effort to improving the overall effectiveness of their teams and their organizations as a whole.

However, an autonomous network is meant to go far beyond mere automation capabilities and advance the capabilities introduced by software-defined networks to ultimately create a network that operates autonomously. An autonomous network seeks to connect humans with technology to enhance their experiences. It incorporates advanced artificial intelligence. Such a network is characterized by agility, adaptability and security with a software-defined approach that also integrates human intelligence.

The demand for autonomous networks is expected to increase as manual approaches become increasingly expensive, the costs of operating computer networks continue to rise, and the growth of data and devices continues to outpace computing capabilities.

Artificial intelligence for better network management

In the context of network management, artificial intelligence is increasingly involved in lowering costs and reducing repair times. Artificial intelligence can be leveraged to identify network issues and help teams resolve them, preferably before end users even know they exist. AI can also provide assessments of the impact of network metrics such as latency, packet loss, and jitter on user experience.

Network teams can also take advantage of gateway health information such as central processing unit (CPU) and memory usage levels. AI and machine learning will provide increasingly refined predictive analytics capabilities to enable these teams to optimize the efficiency of their networks. Machine learning models will also continue to improve with advances in network technology to deliver predictive models with unprecedented accuracy, making predictive analytics a key network management tool.

Additionally, artificial intelligence offers organizations using work-from-home models a way to manage networks as well as remote worker productivity through monitoring and analytics. Such use cases will continue to increase the demand for AI-based networking products.

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Network as a Service and Secure Access Service Edge

Connectivity methods such as Multiprotocol Label Switching (MPLS) hinder network elasticity, as they introduce difficulties in adapting to changes such as accommodating remote workforce. MPLS Wide Area Networks (WANs) are struggling to adapt to today’s cloud era. Capacity scalability is also an issue with MPLS, as MPLS WANs can lock customers into multi-year contracts.

There is a need for approaches that allow organizations to easily scale up or down without delay. There is also a growing need for organizations to secure and support their workforce from anywhere in the world.

Network as a service (NaaS) and secure access service edge (SASE) help organizations modernize their networks. NaaS solutions involve renting cloud-provided network functions from a provider to avoid the need to maintain their own network infrastructure. Legacy tools such as MPLS and VPN are also being replaced by NaaS. Various NaaS solutions incorporate security features such as Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) protection and network firewalls.

Comparatively, SASE solutions are characterized by the combination of network security and software-defined networking capabilities in a unified platform. This makes NaaS fundamental for SASE, as some SASE solutions have NaaS as the basis of connectivity. Adoption of NaaS and SASE will continue to grow as they enable network elasticity by adopting built-in protection and enabling cloud-ready networks.

Converged network, cloud and managed service providers

Prior to network convergence, the network landscape was defined by heterogeneous network infrastructures, protocols, and hardware to connect to servers. Today, end users need the highest quality of service, experience and robustness. At the same time, IT teams serving these end users need different standards to be compatible, manageable costs, and easier security upgrades.

The evolution of network convergence will allow IT administrators to more easily apply network management and make the user experience more predictable while enabling better integration of different products and vendors.

A key driver of network convergence is the ability to eliminate network complexity and make networks easy to operate and maintain. WANs are increasingly converging to create simpler networks. This will not only result in a steady improvement in the user experience, but also in an improved experience of how IT teams interact with networks and their tools.

The cloud has a huge role to play in all of this. The required flexibility, reliability, resiliency and extensibility can only be provided by the cloud. Network management, analytics, and other functions will continue to reside in the cloud. As a result, managed service providers are set to play a much larger role, as third-party compensation for network management functions will continue to provide greater convenience and flexibility, especially for small and medium-sized businesses.

See also: 9 ways AI can help improve cloud management

5G Cellular

As carrier deployments of 5G continue, it’s common to find many companies still operating on 4G/LTE until those deployments are complete. However, the increase in remote working today means that requirements for network bandwidth and speed continue to increase.

Home broadband needs, driven heavily by the rise of remote working, ensure that demand for fixed 5G in the home will skyrocket over time. Fixed 5G will continue to offer a solution to separate work systems from home systems, making it attractive to organizations with a work-from-home culture. It will also provide internet for employees working from home who previously did not have broadband access.

5G will increasingly provide new network models that will change the way operators approach incremental improvement and modernization of their networks. The flexibility of 5G networks will drive the need for more open-source or open-hardware features, as they do not follow a one-size-fits-all approach. The combination of 5G with edge computing will continue to improve IoT adoption in enterprise networks and drive organizations’ digital transformation initiatives.

WiFi 6

The increase in the number of network devices, the surge in global IP traffic, in addition to a wide range of technologies that are now heavily dependent on Wi-Fi, are compounding bandwidth problems. The adoption of IoT, augmented reality, virtual reality, 4K video and 5G networks means that exceptional volumes of traffic are being offloaded to Wi-Fi. That new normal means fewer employees are tied to traditional centralized workstations.

Because of these bandwidth issues, Wi-Fi has had to evolve to deal with them. The result of this evolution is Wi-Fi 6 (802.11ac wireless technology). The transition to Wi-Fi 6 will continue to prove attractive as it uses existing bandwidth more efficiently through orthogonal frequency division multiple access. It also promises new modulation techniques to achieve higher throughput and is expected to be the first wireless standard that reliably breaks the gigabit barrier outside of ideal conditions.

The consumer aspect of Wi-Fi 6, heavily influenced by the shift to working from home, will continue to drive demand for this technology.

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