Is it Time for a Full-Stack Network Infrastructure?

Multi-cloud network management complexities grow day by day—so what’s the plan? Is full-stack network management the answer?

multi-cloud management
(Image by Valter from Pixabay)

Multi-cloud computing, edge applications, a remote workforce that requires network connectivity, and a burgeoning number of IoT devices that are being added to networks each year are making it hard to manage everything with the assortment of network management tools that most sites use. Is it time to consider an investment into an overarching network infrastructure “full stack” that manages everything under one umbrella? And what are the tradeoffs?

What a full-stack network infrastructure means

When we talk about full-stack network infrastructure management, we aren’t referring to the seven-stack protocol layers upon which networks are built, but rather to how these various protocol layers and the applications and IT assets that run on top of them are managed.

Struggling for years with a preponderance of different network management tools from different vendors, the pipe dream for network staffs has always been an over-arching network management “full stack” of tools and visibility that could do everything under one management umbrella. A full-stack network management infrastructure like this can:

  • Monitor and manage everything that goes on across a multi-cloud network through a single pane of glass

  • Use a single, consolidated set of tools to address all network issues

  • Define and enforce a uniform set of governance and security policies that apply to everything and that would make auditors smile.

Network management software vendors have this vision, too.

That's why Cisco, Fortinet, Arista, Aruba, IBM, and others have begun to offer full-stack network management solutions that address network operations across multiple clouds, such as configuration, security, deployment, monitoring, and mediation. On the multi-cloud security integration side, there are SASE (security as a service) solutions that Cisco, Fortinet, zScaler, Palo Alto Networks, and others provide.

The key to choosing between a full-stack single network management solution or just a SASE solution that focuses on security and policy enforcement in a multi-cloud environment is whether you are most concerned that your network governance and security policies are uniform and enforced or if you're seeking a solution that is above and beyond just security and governance, and that can address the entire network management continuum—from security and governance to monitoring, configuration, deployment, and mediation.

What the network market tells us

The enterprise network market is estimated to grow at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 5.8% between now and 2030, so while growth is steady, it is not at the rate of other IT investments like AI (artificial intelligence).

This suggests that companies of all sizes will be pursuing a more graduated approach to improving their networks and that the primary focus is likely to be on hardening security.

Do you look or leap into a full-stack network management approach?

The question becomes: what is the best way to continue building out your network? The answer to that question is likely to depend around improving reliability, resiliency, network monitoring and health, security, and mean time to response and resolution (MTTR) for the issues that arise in a multi-cloud environment that you need 360-degree awareness in.

There’ll be a hard cost in terms of dollars and staff up-skilling, but to simply kick the can down the road and defer all investments isn’t a smart strategy, either.

Further complicating the decision of how to best grow the network is the situation of network vendors themselves. Those that offer a full-stack, multi-cloud network management solution are in evolutionary stages themselves. They have a vision of their multi-cloud full-stack network offerings, but a complete set of stack functionality is not yet in place.

With both vendors and companies in developmental stages, what’s a sound approach to the network management full stack?

A good starting point from both technology and budgetary standpoints is in the area where multi-cloud network operability is mature: the automation of security and governance rules and execution across clouds.

Both SASE and full-stack network management software providers can apply a uniform set of security and governance standards to a wide array of different clouds. This reduces security and compliance risks for companies, and reducing risk makes it an easier budget “sell” for network managers when they make the case to upper management for a move to a full-stack network management solution.

Planning your roadmap

At the same time, network managers should begin thinking about end-to-end visibility and interoperability for the network because network technology is certainly moving this way.

The vision is 360-degree visibility (and the ability to configure, deploy, and fix) across an entire multi-cloud network, no matter where its endpoints are. However, even if a total solution were available today, enterprises still need to prepare for the technology. Preparatory steps include:

Cost: What will it take to fund full-stack network management software, migrate to it—and to sell the value of the approach to management?

Operational revisions and staff expertise: If you move to a single, monolithic network management software that can manage your multi-cloud network from a single pane of glass, your existing network tools will likely be replaced by a new set of tools that your staff will need to learn and use. Network operational workflows will also need to be modified and/or replaced to work with the new system.

Vendor lock-in: If you go with a single, vendor-provided full-stack network infrastructure management solution, you also risk locking yourself into a single vendor, since it will be difficult to move. It will be important to choose a vendor whom you can trust and depend upon for the foreseeable future.

Final remarks on full-stack network management

Moving toward a “single pane of glass” network vision with a uniform set of tools that can work anywhere and automate routine network operations across all clouds is a logical evolutionary path for the network. Vendors of full-stack network management systems are working toward this vision, but as yet there are no complete offerings that address every network concern and operation. In a sense, this is good for companies, because most still need to sit down and plan their long-term network expansions.

In the interim, network management complexities in a multi—cloud system are growing, and some of these growth challenges, such as end to end security and governance, simply can’t wait. This is where SASE and also full-stack network management providers offer the most mature solutions for security and governance—and it makes sense as a sound starting point for network expansion in multi-cloud environments.

About the Author(s)

Mary E. Shacklett, President, Transworld Data

Mary E. Shacklett is an internationally recognized technology commentator and President of Transworld Data, a marketing and technology services firm.

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