The COVID-19 pandemic pushed networks into uncharted territory in 2020, with an overnight shift to remote work and a sudden surge in cyber attacks bringing unprecedented connectivity and security challenges to the enterprise. As a result, many innovative networking startups received urgent interest from organizations looking for technologies to help them adapt to the new normal. A survey by Enterprise Management Associates, for example, found nine out of 10 tech professionals had to modify the technology they used to support application access because of COVID-19.
The five most recent winners of TechTarget's Network Innovation Award -- an editorially independent distinction that recognizes new and noteworthy products and services in the industry -- represent diverse technologies that include disaggregated routing, Secure Access Service Edge (SASE), private 5G and intelligent network automation. These networking startups aim to help enterprises meet today's challenges and tomorrow's crises, making them vendors to watch in 2021 and beyond.
"We were a really good vitamin before COVID-19, but intelligent network automation has now turned into a painkiller," said Jeff Gray, CEO and co-founder of Gluware Inc. And the same is arguably true of the other networking startups on this list.
1. Arrcus Inc.
The first Network Innovation Award winner of 2020 was Arrcus and its disaggregated routing OS, ArcOS. Founder and CEO Devesh Garg told SearchNetworking the company's mission is to democratize networking, pitting its software-based routing architecture against major players, like Arista Networks, Cisco and Juniper. With a flexible consumption model and its own white box supply chain in place, Arrcus provides customers with both software-only and software-coupled-with-hardware options. It also has extensive support for routing protocols.
"Software routing provides flexibility and the ability to update remotely," wrote Lee Doyle, analyst at Doyle Research. Those capabilities are critical amid a viral pandemic and other possible global crises. Doyle said he believes software-based routing is quickly becoming the new normal, with its disruptive effect likely to compare with that of software-defined WAN.
2. Celona Inc.
In early 2020, the Federal Communications Commission freed Citizens Broadband Radio Service spectrum for commercial use, opening the door to private 5G networks. Celona's cellular wireless platform is user-friendly for enterprise networking pros, with an interface that lets them manage 5G like Wi-Fi.
In 2020, according to Doyle, carrier 4G/5G offered important flexibility during unanticipated network traffic changes caused by COVID-19, enabling IT leaders to keep critical users and applications online. And should the world face similar future crises, 5G could prove instrumental in both enabling remote work in the long term and lessening the strain on healthcare networks.
"Mobile health workers need access in the field during incidents, and critical patient diagnostic data needs to be transmitted between ambulances and emergency rooms," independent analyst John Fruehe wrote in a recent expert tip on 5G enterprise use cases. "5G is a great tool for these areas where latency, security and high bandwidth are all critical." It could also play an important role in mobile contact tracing, he added.
Celona CEO and co-founder Rajeev Shah said private 5G is perfect for environments like traditional and field hospitals, where a growing number of applications with IoT and automation capabilities require ultrareliable connectivity.
DriveNets nabbed TechTarget's innovation award for its take on software-based, disaggregated routing, aimed at helping Tier 1 and Tier 2 carriers scale their networks like hyperscale cloud providers, efficiently and inexpensively. The company's software behaves as a single router entity that can operate on a single white box or across clusters of up to 200.
Silvan TschoppHead of solution architecture, Open Systems
AT&T has deployed DriveNets technology throughout its core network, running on UfiSpace white boxes. With a 75% virtualized network, the carrier said software-based technology helped it pivot to meet the unexpected demands of the COVID-19 crisis.
"Having a much more software-centric network allows us to respond much more rapidly to any new demand on the network, even those caused by worldwide pandemics," Andre Fuetsch, executive vice president and CTO at AT&T, said during his keynote speech at the Open Networking & Edge Summit in September 2020.
When a global pandemic spawned a highly distributed workforce practically overnight, many network managers' thoughts turned to network automation. Gluware CEO Jeff Gray told SearchNetworking that in the early days of COVID-19, one customer -- Terracon, a global engineering firm -- reconfigured its entire network to accommodate new remote traffic patterns in just two hours.
"That was a real feather in the Terracon network team's cap," Gray said. "It made them look smart for purchasing Gluware before the pandemic." He added that his team has seen an unprecedented influx of mature deals since the inception of the global health crisis, with many organizations eager to deploy automation technology as part of their response plans.
Gluware has also garnered praise for its success in automating complex brownfield networks and for the fact that network engineers don't need to know how to script or code to use the technology.
5. Open Systems
Open Systems' SASE platform is a cloud-driven security fabric that decentralizes access to network resources and services, using remote access entry points at the edge and identity-based permissions.
The technology proved integral to many customers' pandemic response strategies, with Open Systems connecting 60,000 new remote users over a two-week period in early 2020.
"You can't provision traditional physical hardware to enable remote work in such a short time frame," said Silvan Tschopp, head of solution architecture at Open Systems. "It just shows why SASE is the right way to move forward. You don't know what tomorrow will bring, and SASE really sets you up to be able to react to unexpected events."