The 2021 enterprise network: Retiring the branch, fueling transformation and getting more from AI

Posted on January 5, 2021

This article was originally published on Forbes.com.

The year 2020 was unquestionably one of the biggest years the enterprise network has had in recent history. With that in mind, here is a look back at how key impacts will shape the evolution of the enterprise network in 2021.

Over the last nine months, every corporate network has been shoved into the spotlight and tested in new ways. Reliability issues, remote work and increased security threats were big challenges, each compounded by accelerated demands. Consequently, IT leaders were put through the ringer while executive teams had to own up to any delayed upgrades of the past five years.

Despite the trials and tribulations of 2020, the network is coming out stronger on the other side. Because of the pandemic, businesses now have a deep appreciation for the role IT infrastructure plays in making digital transformation happen. As a result, IT leaders and their initiatives have earned a stronger voice at the executive table.

As we turn past events into predictions, the pandemic continues to dominate our thoughts. IT priorities will be about learning from 2020 and adapting to whatever the new year brings. While we have all said before that the embrace of change enables companies to thrive, we say it now with fresh perspective. As the chairman and CEO of a company that offers software-defined networking, SD-WAN, SASE and managed security solutions, here is what I envision for 2021.

Hybrid and distributed work foreshadows the end of the branch.

One of the biggest lessons of 2020 was building a work-from-anywhere (WFA) model into the resiliency plan. To be productive, anywhere workers need to securely connect to their applications with the same high-quality experience, whether they are in the office or at home. But rapidly and cost-effectively delivering that experience was a major challenge for some companies.

That helps explain why 64% of IT leaders are investing more in network infrastructure in quarter two than quarter one of 2020, according to a Masergy and IDG market trends survey. In fact, a Futurium study discussed by a colleague on The Fast Mode shows 65% of IT professionals claim Covid-19 accelerated the need for SD-WAN technology in a WFA environment. SD-WAN uses software to determine the most effective way to route traffic for improved application experiences, and secure access service edge (SASE) is a way to leverage SD-WAN to centrally manage network security across all locations.

When every at-home employee now becomes their own branch office to connect, SD-WAN and SASE can better support WFA. That’s why, in 2021, I believe we will see many companies eliminate branch networks and rely solely on a software-defined model.

Getting started with this model requires alignment across your network and security teams. SASE is a converged approach; therefore, cross-functional coordination is critical. When you evaluate solutions, you should bring together both security and network decision-makers.

Networks are the foundation fueling business transformation.

When it comes to network design and network services, businesses often think that “speeds and feeds” — network bandwidth and capacity — are the most important considerations. While these specs will remain relevant, I dont expect them to be top of mind in 2021.

Instead, businesses will be thinking about how they can securely connect all the dots in an environment that is becoming more distributed:

  • Connecting users everywhere to information everywhere
  • Connecting one cloud to another cloud (e.g., for integrations)
  • Connecting more devices

Network connections are the glue that brings it all together. They can provide perfect cloud application experiences and the data insights leaders need to optimize operations. Thus, the network is the foundation.

Reliably and securely connecting all the dots starts with an understanding of your IT environment, cloud workflows and security maturity. You might think about categorizing office locations, applications and user groups as business-critical, important and discretionary — and then use this information to drive business continuity and network reliability improvements. To accelerate your threat response, your security checkups should evaluate threat awareness; technologies for cloud, mobile and endpoint security; and human resources.

AI will get real.

Babies crawl, then walk, and then run. AI-integrated networks are working through similar phases of maturity and are now ready to take their first big steps. The end game is autonomous networking, which is a 100% set-it-and-forget-it environment that automatically ensures optimization and security.

That’s still a few years off, but in 2021, I believe AI will enable companies to increase productivity and enhance application performance to improve user experiences two-fold. For example, AI could automatically adjust networks so employees will no longer confront long downtimes or need to call IT when systems don’t work. Networks could “know”:

  • which paths applications should take based on performance
  • when and where to add bandwidth, and
  • how to optimize cloud application performance.

SD-WAN companies like Cisco, VMware and Masergy are leveraging AIOps technologies to bring solutions to market, which could widen the focus from connectivity to automation.

Security is getting more complex — the next pandemic could be a security one.

Everywhere data goes, security must follow. And in 2020, data went everywhere. Mobile device and remote user security issues only added gas to an already hot fire with the security challenges of the cloud, SaaS applications, IoT devices and a growing web of interconnections. The result: security complexity has multiplied again as cybercriminals gain a larger playing field. So, it’s no surprise that cyberattacks skyrocketed in 2020.

Where is this leading us? It could just be the perfect storm for another pandemic — this time of the security nature. If the right security measures are not taken in 2021, breaches and ransomware attacks have the potential to reach epidemic and even pandemic proportions.

With one of the network’s biggest years now in the rearview mirror, the next 365 days could be more significant. IT leaders have a firm grasp on new needs and will be laser-focused. Will network budgets surpass security budgets? Will we skirt a cybersecurity epidemic? One thing is certain: More change is on the horizon, and every business has a keener sense of what it needs to rapidly adapt and thrive with unwavering continuity.

Chris MacFarland

Chris MacFarland joined Masergy in 2008 and was quickly promoted to CEO. Prior to joining Masergy, Chris served in executive positions at BroadSoft, McLeodUSA, Allegiance Telecom, Verio, OnRamp, CompuNet and Compu-Tek International. He currently serves on the board of directors for iTopia. Chris is passionate about community service and has championed numerous charitable and outreach programs. He attended the University of Texas at Arlington where he majored in Computer Science and Engineering.