Almost overnight, COVID-19 forced enterprises to change the way they provide and protect network services. With an unprecedented number of employees working from home, it suddenly became necessary to turn to technologies and methods that promised to ensure reliable network operation, maximize staff performance, and maintain strong security.
Many of the innovations deployed during the pandemic have shown real staying power. Here's a rundown of five trends that look like they'll be sticking around for the foreseeable future.
1. Stronger reliance on software-defined perimeter technology
Software-Defined Perimeter (SDP) technology, designed to secure remote access and create a Zero Trust security strategy, has proven to be a critical tool during the COVID-19 crisis, observed Brig. Gen. Greg Touhill, former CISO for the US government and now president of AppGate Federal Group, a cybersecurity and analytics firm. "SDP delivers results that are more effective, efficient, and secure than complex, expensive, and vulnerable legacy technology," he noted. "I expect most organizations will save money and improve performance by retiring legacy technologies, such as virtual private networks, in lieu of SDP."
SDP has been available for several years, yet is now finally taking off at warp speed. Touhill pointed to the example of a Hollywood special-effects studio that suddenly found itself coping with a mainly home-based staff. "Due to the sensitive production work they do, security of their intellectual property was front-and-center as they looked to maintain continuity of operations," he said. "Rather than expand their legacy VPN infrastructure, over a four-day period, they pivoted the entire organization to SDP while maintaining their ability to securely support their customers."
2. SASE supplants SD-WAN
Secure access service edge (SASE) is an emerging cybersecurity-oriented network technology that suddenly became the go-to remote access approach for many organizations, thanks largely to the demands imposed by COVID-19. It's easy to see why. SASE combines SD-WAN capabilities with added security functions, such as a Secure Web Gateway (SWG), a Cloud Access Security Broker (CASB), Firewall as a Service (FWaaS), and Zero Trust Network Access (ZTNA) to facilitate secure network access in cloud and mobile environments.
Liberty Mutual Insurance recognized SASE's potential to support the network access needs of a large at-home workforce long before COVID-19 struck. "We began our network upgrades and SASE efforts two to three years ago," said Tim Maguire, a Liberty Mutual internetworking architect and senior product owner. "Having those [elements] in place before the pandemic began provided the foundation for us to react much quicker to the rapid pace of shifting workloads."
Maguire noted that the experience of transitioning 44,000 users practically overnight from an MPLS-connected office network to a broadband-connected home network helped to validate and accelerate the firm's strategy of migrating its branch offices from MPLS to SD-WAN. "It’s still unclear what additional value will be uncovered," he added.
3. Pervasive intelligence
COVID-19 drove home the point that in order to succeed in a rapidly changing environment, enterprises need to become more intelligent, connected, and agile. By involving all team members in the formation and attainment of business objectives, pervasive intelligence uses internal network resources to help staff better access, assess, and implement data insights, increasing scale, resilience, responsiveness, and agility.
Pervasive intelligence allows organizations to use networks as a medium to facilitate human connections for better business outcomes, said Ram Chakravarti, CTO of enterprise software firm BMC Software. "Additionally, it's a way to intelligently apply AI to help shift people's roles to focus on the areas of the business that require judgment, empathy, and understanding," he explained. "This tie between humans and technology is what has been so key to surviving the pandemic and is what will carry organizations forward in the future."
4. Better and more accurate network planning
COVID-19 forced many organizations to come to terms with the fact that they were entirely unprepared to meet a sudden, massive surge in network demands. "They had little, perhaps even no way, of rapidly ramping up authentication and authorization approval processes for many employees who now needed secure, remote access to the organization’s network," said Al Marcella, president of Business Automation Consultants, a consulting firm offering IT security assessments and audit and training services.
Although COVID-19's initial impact has gradually faded for most organizations, now is not the time for a collective sigh of relief or to take a breather, Marcella warned. "Organizations must not only assess and plan for the next 'unprecedented incident,' but for much more common occurrences that could impact an organization’s ability to continue its ongoing operations," he stated.
5. More precise network performance monitoring
The pandemic may have finally proven that bandwidth, by itself, is a dead metric. "Fat pipes on LANs can hide many problems, and the most adaptable IT teams during the pandemic are those with visibility into real traffic details," said Patrick Hubbard, head geek at network management software firm SolarWinds. "For example, tolerable videoconferencing apps might have limped along in the office, but may be unusable due to jitter and loss over the public internet or VPNs optimized for file transfer, not streaming," he added.
Traditional service quality monitoring, approached simply by watching port utilization, is becoming increasingly meaningless. "The most successful IT teams during the pandemic are those who already understood how to discover and monitor detailed application network behavior," Hubbard said. "They were able to quickly prioritize and adapt their networks by business need, not just link demand."
Paradoxically, the pandemic may actually lead to better and safer enterprise networks. "Many engineers have proposed great modernization and transformation ideas for years, but they’ve been stymied by technology, vendors, internal politics, or budgets," Hubbard observed. "Suddenly, they're getting clear direction, coupled with the authority to execute, right from the C-suite."