Networking Challenges For 2016 And Beyond

Network administrators are bracing for the proliferation of IoT devices, escalating security threats, and tight budgets ahead.

Patrick Hubbard

December 11, 2015

5 Min Read
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The network: To some, it's an often-cursed entity that only becomes part of the conversation when there's a problem. To us, the network administrators and engineers responsible for it, the network is a mark of success. If the network is performing well, we're doing well; if it's not, well, not much at all seems to be going right. For us, the network is an extension of ourselves.

Given the complex symbiotic relationship between network and net admin, we're closely watching a confluence of technology changes for the year ahead. Our beloved networks are facing uncharted territory when it comes to the challenges of modern IT environments -- think the Internet of Things (IoT) and software-defined networking (SDN) on top of ever-present budget and security concerns. In the next year, these pressures may present make-or-break moments for networks that until now have supported us well.

With this in mind, we recently asked our thwack community of IT professionals about advice they would give to their networks for the year ahead, similar to how they might advise their own child. Because that's how we all think of our networks, right? At least in my experience, a calm and soothing voice is best when coaxing an unruly Deny out of an access list.

Our results point to a truth about the state of the network: Networks are aging, and we net admins are tasked with upgrading them to meet business performance standards. Unfortunately, there is also a general lack of time and budget to do so. Of course, we admins are aging -- err, maturing -- too

More specific recurring themes in our study highlight the challenges that lie ahead and identify best practices we can use to prepare our networks and ourselves for the future.

Growth spurts

Most corporate networks have been growing dramatically. In the coming year, our networks will encounter another surge of devices, applications and network loads that will try networks and network admins like never before. For our purposes here, let's focus on just one of the major issues related to this: the Internet of Things.

According to IDC's Worldwide IT Industry 2016 Predictions, by 2018 the number of IoT devices will more than double, spurring the development of 200,000 new apps. The trend is coming on fast and furious, and companies without an IoT strategy will be left behind, similar to what we saw with BYOD, but even more intense.

Internet access for everything we touch is an imminent reality. Sooner or later, nontraditional network devices will be more common than traditional devices that plug into the network -- think lighting and security controls, scanners and sensors, even your office coffee pot. These "things" will soon infiltrate the network, hogging bandwidth and using network protocols, which means you need to prepare now for the network takeover of the "things."

In terms of best practices for IoT prep, remember that awareness of application and network traffic is key since traditional IT security boundaries will essentially become extinct and environments will respond to human presence and user context.

Additionally, in the IoT era, basic network bandwidth concerns will become secondary to concerns like network availability and security for connected devices. If you're not already, you should be monitoring the network, applications and quality of service, and now is the time to get real control over IP address management as we look towards IPv6 migration, which will be even further hurried by the onslaught of internet-connected devices.

Safety first

Security truly became universally top-of-mind in 2015. But for the network and the IT infrastructure, 2016 marks the beginning of a new age in security, when we simply can't "get around to it later." Major security breaches, more devices and third parties connecting to the network, cloud migration and other trends broaden the threat landscape for 2016 and beyond. Achieving a truly secure network has always been about being proactive -- taking inventory of networks to reveal vulnerabilities, proactively upgrading security technology and device firmware, getting IP addresses under control, and always monitoring for abnormalities. For 2016, this is no longer an option.

To ensure secure networks amidst configuration changes, there a few basic steps you can take right now. First, standardize as much infrastructure as is reasonable, or at least find an effective way to manage unique systems that are easy to overlook. Next, admit that perimeter defenses are limited by their nature and moving to a layered zone defense using more automation may substantially reduce vulnerability.

Also, ensure you have control over changes to the network by implementing a change control process. Lastly, remember that compliance is two-fold and should include both external governance, as well as adherence to internal security policies. These secure network practices will also help you maintain budget to scale and grow your security alongside the network for years to come.

Keeping up with the Joneses

Technology that others don't understand is often the hardest to justify from a cost standpoint. Yes, I'm preaching to the choir when I say that network budgets are oftentimes an uphill battle. And judging from the thwack  community letters to the network, it seems the theme is perennial: Networks do not naturally receive more money to support mounting complexity and demand.

For this reason, you must be resourceful: Understand your network inventory and how you can be both lean and effective. But most importantly, build relationships with corporate executives. IT success is crucial to business success, and the network is a key component to what keeps businesses running smoothly. Work on bridging the gap between IT and the C-suite so you can stick up for what your networks (and you) deserve.

To many of us, these issues hit close to home. Hopefully, they caused you to reflect on the challenges that will accelerate in 2016 and beyond. But remember, you're not alone. We're all in this together, facing the same challenges. Rely on each other and rely on best practices and your networks will have your back.

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About the Author(s)

Patrick Hubbard

Head Geek & Director of Technical Product Marketing, SolarWindsPatrick Hubbard is a head geek and director of technical product marketing at SolarWinds, an IT management software provider based in Austin, Texas. Hubbard, who joined SolarWinds in 2007, has more than 20 years of experience in product management and strategy, technical evangelism, sales engineering, and software development, at both Fortune 500 companies and startups spanning the high-tech, transportation, financial services, and telecom industries.

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