The grim reaper's sharp scythe makes no exceptions, including network components. Your task, as a manager, is to beat the reaper before it can do its job, condemning an essential network or network service to purgatory when it reaches the end of its lifespan.
Network technology, like everything else, has a lifespan, says Lisa Guess, senior vice president of global engineering sales at wireless edge networking equipment provider Cradlepoint, in an email interview. "It may be tempting to believe it's cheaper and easier to keep your network running beyond its lifespan, but it rarely is."
A clear indication that a network technology has outlived its usefulness is when it can no longer support business needs in terms of scalability, security, or efficiency, observes Clint Fisher, cybersecurity director at engineering and professional services Black Rock Engineering & Technology, via email. Frequent failures or incompatibility with newer systems are also key warning signs, he adds. "Most network managers are adept at spotting obsolete technologies, but challenges arise in balancing legacy systems with the need for innovation, often constrained by budgetary and operational considerations."
Technologies on the rise, including blockchain, augmented/virtual reality, 5G, AI analytics, and AIOps, all require advanced network capabilities to manage data traffic with speed, security, agility, and low latency, says Amit Dhingra, executive vice president, network services, at technology and business solutions provider NTT via email. "If your network infrastructure is struggling to support the deployment of new technologies, devices, and applications, it's a telltale sign that your organization needs to consider a network upgrade."
A sudden change in network usage could also signal a problem. "Network managers and their teams should work to understand what's driving the change in usage," says Marc Herren, an analyst with technology research and advisory firm ISG, via email. Have business needs changed? Is a new device or software incompatible with the existing network environment? Either could be the root of the problem.
Taking action before the lifespan end
Once obsolescence has been discovered, conduct a thorough assessment of the existing network infrastructure, Fisher advises. "This includes identifying areas requiring upgrades and exploring new technologies that align with the organization's strategic goals and security requirements."
Technology is rapidly evolving, and planned obsolescence needs to be in every network manager's mind from the moment a new component is first evaluated. "Evaluation criteria should include how well the technology will evolve through the current network cycle," Guess says. Yet it’s not always possible to start at the beginning of the cycle, she notes. "Regardless of the phase, it's critical to have a complete inventory and scope of the obsolete technology, which could have a large, sprawling footprint."
Most prone to end-of-lifespan troubles
The technologies most prone to obsolescence tend to lack the flexibility needed to adapt to new standards or integrate with emerging technologies. "Legacy systems, proprietary technologies, and those not supporting automation or cloud integration often fall into this category," Fisher says.
Among the network technologies most prone to obsolescence are the ones that are challenging to manage, are restrictive, or provide duplicative services, such as traditional wired Ethernet deployments. "Most businesses provide both wired and wireless connectivity within their facilities," Herren says. While there are a few exceptions—such as call centers—wireless generally meets business requirements and provides a better user experience, allowing employees to connect without being physically tethered to a location. Wireless also generally provides a more unified user experience across offices, homes, and other locations. "Businesses should be evaluating whether duplicate connectivity solutions, wired and wireless, still provide the business value they once did."
Endpoints, sometimes numbering into the thousands, can also pose problems. Meanwhile, removing old protocols can unexpectedly break parts of the network. "Hardware can also be a giant headache because it sometimes exists in harsh or rarely accessible industrial environments," Guess says. But with creative approaches, careful planning, cooperation, and fortitude, evolving obsolescence out of old networks is rewarding, profitable, and invaluable."
Final thoughts on dealing with lifespan issues
Most network leaders and teams are good at recognizing a failing technology. "The challenge comes in identifying all the dependencies, both technical and business, and coordinating a shift to a new solution across the organization," Herren says.
It's important to foster a culture of adaptability and forward-thinking within the network team, Fisher advises. "Proactively planning for upgrades, budgeting for technological innovation, and ensuring regular training can significantly enhance an organization's ability to evolve with technological changes."
It’s also important to be proactive. "Survey the landscape, be active in industry technology discussions, and keep an open mind while avoiding hype and short-term trends," Guess suggests. "Plan for obsolescence, have a good monitoring system to watch for early warning signs of suboptimal performance, and embrace agility."