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There are two key elements to look for when deciding to upgrade your network. The first is additional throughput, with more, of course, always being better. Upgrades from 10 Mbps to 100 Mbps and then 1,000 Megabit Ethernet have essentially defined the major advances in networking and justified the expenditures involved.
The second item on a network upgrade checklist is security, which, by its very nature, remains a moving target and the one area of IT where no one is ever truly done. No matter: A network that isn't secure isn't really a network at all -- it's an invitation to disaster.
But it's not enough to think of a simple checklist of replacements and additions when you decide to upgrade your network. Here are some other considerations that have achieved an equal footing with throughput and security in driving the evolution of today's organizational networks.
Automated management and operations
We've benefited from continual advances in automating the management and operations of networks in recent years, with such capabilities as self-configuring, reconfiguring and repairing increasingly available, especially on wireless LANs. We'll be seeing even more artificial intelligence here, as well, using analytics to adjust management settings in real time. The result is reductions in operating expense and enhancements to availability and reliability, each of which provides wide-ranging benefits to organizations everywhere.
Management implementations and overall operations will be bounded by the definition of operating policies, among them class of service, security policies implemented via identity management tools, and cost-of-service control. Policy-management screens will become common, enabling network managers to easily and unambiguously express authorization and other permissions, refining and even redefining them as needed. This is akin to control systems of modern aircraft, where pilot inputs express intent, rather than specific, moment-by-moment actions.
Softer and more flexible network infrastructure
By now, everyone in network planning and operations is familiar with at least the concepts behind software-defined networking and network functions virtualization. The former increases the programmability -- and, thus, the flexibility -- of key network elements. The latter moves elements of network functionality into the cloud, a form of virtualization that will become much more popular and eventually result in such intriguing constructs as hybrid carrier and organizational networks.
The real value here, though, is fundamentally economic, as these technologies lower the capital costs of infrastructure and reduce operating expenses. The net-net here, so to speak, is networks become very much like smart plumbing, automatically adapting to changing workloads and all manner of challenges -- including security -- with maximum visibility ensured and minimal operator involvement required.
Capacity, not throughput
Believe it or not, faster is not always better -- at least on a per-user basis. While we never want to see a bottleneck anywhere in the network value chain, most users require far less throughput than is commonly provisioned today. Instead, the resulting available aggregate throughput, which we call capacity, is rapidly becoming the key jacks-or-better definition of today's successful networks.
Note, however, that capacity is a bit more difficult to plan in Wi-Fi networks, where instantaneously available throughput varies with range -- the distance between client devices and access points -- and prevailing radio conditions. The answer is to minimize range by deploying more access points where more capacity is required, use automation to optimally set transmit power levels and channel assignments, and upgrade to the most current Wi-Fi standards.
Networks begin to look a lot more like computers going forward -- more programmable, more distributed, easier to use and smarter. Their transformation will also make throughput less critical. It's easy to see a time where both wired and wireless networks will be able to deliver tens of gigabits to individuals with the corresponding overprovisioned capacity.
Security? That's another matter altogether. Security will need to focus on the integrity of tools and strategies organizations will implement. The goal is that only authorized changes can be made to policies, configurations and settings. And the elements and opportunities noted above as part of a network upgrade checklist can only help.
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