For the past few years, we've been conducting an informal survey with a representative sampling of our client base -- including both manufacturers and end-user organizations -- with one simple, open-ended question: In 2025, what will the future of networking look like?
Networks have taken a significant number of major twists and turns since they began to gain popularity in the early 1980s, with an amazing range of basic technologies, protocols and configurations developed and deployed. With today's mobile-centric wireless LANs now dominating the edge of the network, it seems a safe bet that Wi-Fi will remain the preferred access for essentially all users, but underpinned by wired Ethernet for backhaul and interconnect.
Wave 2 of IEEE 802.11ac, which has gained significant traction, will be a bit long in the tooth in 2025, but it will still be in use -- not completely replaced by 802.11ax and its 10 Gbps of throughput. Wi-Fi will continue to dominate access. No surprises there.
But we did notice a few other interesting trends as we mull the future of networking, including:
- The demise of the WLAN controller. Controllers evolved from early gateway appliances and specialized wireless switches -- both from the late 1990s -- as a vehicle to consolidate key WLAN functions, like traffic management and security. That made sense at the time, as the required electronic components were expensive, price and performance were relatively poor, and the experience base limited. In 2025, high-performance microprocessors and a foundation of distributed systems -- most notably, the internet itself -- make controllers unnecessary. WLANs thus become another beneficiary of a key trend that will shortly be obvious: an emphasis on simplicity.
- Ethernet switches become transparent.The ubiquitous switch will remain, providing interconnect and power for all of those access points, as well as transparent policy implementation and traffic management at the edge of the network and in intermediary switches where those are still required. The big debate today is whether the next generation of switches deployed should go to per-port speeds of 10 Gbps, or whether the current crop of 2.5/5 Gbps switches will remain adequate. I favor 10 Gbps, as I believe component costs and, thus, end-user prices will fall quickly. And 2.5 Gbps and 5 Gbps are really stopgap capacities that will require upgrades before the equipment provisioning them is fully depreciated. Fiber will become more common, but hybrid fiber-copper cables will be required for Power over Ethernet, slowing deployments somewhat.
- Routers live on -- sort of. The term router is increasingly inappropriate, as the genesis of the router was in multiprotocol infrastructure elements supporting more than one physical layer. Today's routers are really degenerate Layer 3 switches, with additional security and management capabilities. They are really more of a WAN access device than a router and, again, transparent in operation. Carrier-grade routers remain, of course, but the enterprise router of 2025 also becomes transparent.
- Everything else in the cloud. Network functions virtualization and software-defined networking will play increasingly large roles the future of networking, converting what used to be specialized hardware or local virtual machines into software running in the cloud. All management functions, including analytics, will reside in the cloud, providing full-function, extensible, manage-anywhere flexibility and unprecedented resilience and reliability. We also expect managed services providers to play a rapidly increasing role, especially with SMBs, turning the entire network into an operating expense installed and managed by a third party. Even some larger firms will move in this direction over time -- and for much more of IT than just the network.
What does all of this mean? Well, I hate to say this, being a networking guy from way back, but networks get a bit boring by 2025. They are flatter, simpler, less expensive to buy and use, and even start to fade into the woodwork, looking more like plumbing or electric wiring than an exotic technology. Networks will be more self-configuring -- and re-configuring as required -- self-repairing and transparent than has historically been the case. CapEx will continue to decline, thanks to ongoing advances in basic technologies, chips and manufacturing processes. At the same time, labor expenses will also drop, as management systems become smarter, as well.
Above all, the future of networking benefits from the cloudification that IT is seeing overall, with processors, storage and applications resident on cloud-based servers, and not on dedicated hardware in an expensive machine room. Yes, network closets will still be around -- there just won't be all that much in them.
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