The network edge is the new battlefront where employees, customers, and partners connect. As networks become more complex, how can businesses avoid putting their digital transformation goals at risk?
The next great leap forward in progress will be marked by exponential growth in connection and connectivity. As sensors become smaller and more energy efficient, mobile devices become more capable and our networks become more robust, industries as disparate as healthcare, transportation, education, government, and entertainment will find opportunities for new efficiencies, new ways of interacting with consumers and transformative approaches to serving their communities.
In short, advancements in network technology are helping us achieve great things. We’re seeing the well-documented benefits of agility, reliability, and performance of networks in healthcare, where wireless networks are supporting complex EHR systems and M2M communications are delivering moment-to-moment information on the patient status and improving health outcomes. There’s also been an emergence of new educational (and job) opportunities provided via emerging eSports programs in K-12 and higher education settings.
All of this is reliant on strong networks and robust infrastructures designed to handle data from countless wireless and wired endpoints. And the most exciting areas of progress can be found at the network edge.
The network edge is the point where an organization and its customers meet. It is where users engage, mobile transactions occur and IoT devices connect and are managed. It is the first line of defense against cyber-security attacks and the go-to place to get a pulse on the business. The edge is a new frontier where every second counts. Considering the examples above, the technologies functioning in hospitals and smart cities can’t afford a moment of delay when something goes wrong. Furthermore, hardware makers have predicted one billion 5G subscriptions by 2023 – introducing the imminent need for a much faster network able to power emerging technologies like virtual reality, artificial intelligence and more.
At the edge, multiple connectivity technologies come together across diverse locations and different deployment scenarios. For organizations looking to own the next generation of advancement and innovation, a focus on the network edge is paramount.
Once you’ve absorbed the fact that we will have one billion new 5G devices on a given network in five years, consider the sheer complexity that will be required of these networks – from IoT sensors to smartphones to connected appliances and more, enterprises are no longer simply connecting terminals to a central hub. The network has transformed into a mesh of devices and the shape of networks is moving towards a more distributed model. The places we’re connecting have expanded along with these advancements – forget the classroom or the workplace. We’re now challenged to connect users on the retail floor, at sports stadiums, in public spaces and more.
With 30 billion connected IoT devices expected by 2020 according to Statista, businesses are now being challenged to collect data in real time and Wi-Fi RF networks, while flexible, are prone to being difficult to manage in dynamic environments. In places where there is a large amount of changing information to take in account – user densities, user locations, distance, and coverage – it can be a significant challenge for humans to analyze and address how best to optimize a wireless network. Let’s be honest – in an age where every second counts on the network, traditional centralized systems are not designed to address a fast-moving network driven by countless edge sensors and other inputs.
This distributed connectivity model also creates new areas for caution, as more connection points mean more vectors for security breaches. Millions of newly-connected IoT sensors and devices have made the edge vulnerable – and everything from blood pressure monitors to motion sensors and door locks will become the new attack surface for security breaches.
Simply put, we have no choice but to find new approaches to network management that reflect how today’s networks look and operate.
Recently, Gartner’s Tom Bittman wrote “Massive centralization, economies of scale, self-service and full automation get us most of the way there – but it doesn’t overcome physics – the weight of data, the speed of light. As people need to interact with their digitally-assisted realities in real-time, waiting on data center miles (or many miles) away isn’t going to work.”
For today’s enterprise, an increasingly complex array of network scenarios is to be expected. And this means finding new ways to ensure that your network is doing the work of protecting and optimizing itself.
The network is no longer a passive conduit to transmit information, it’s transforming into an intelligent entity that can take data and transform it into actionable insights. Enterprises must reevaluate how they view their networks, seeing it not as a tool, but as a strategic asset that maximizes capital investment through cost containment and continuous optimization.
Enter machine learning, which has the ability to significantly improve user experience and reduce the workload on system engineers. Through machine learning, engineers can collect analytics, device statistics, connection rates, and user and application experience characteristics. Compound that with emerging artificial intelligence (AI) to automate WLAN configuration and IT teams will be able to proactively troubleshoot, remediate and dynamically optimize the Wi-Fi network. It’s time for us all to acknowledge that AI and ML are no longer technologies of the future. Integrating these emerging technologies into a network is a very real, very present necessity that will provide customers technological advances to save time, effort and money while improving the end user experience.
How does AI and ML speed up experiences for end-users – and why do we care? Let’s look at how it plays out in a hospital: a hospital is a highly complex area with a particularly difficult environment (hard walls, reflective surfaces, lots of glass – you get the picture). In addition to the complexity of the building itself, consider all of the people on the network – doctors, nurses, patients, visitors – connecting to it across different devices with different operating systems and applications. Now consider a scenario where – no exaggeration – every second counts. There is a clear urgency for technology to perform in the ER and the risk of failure is incomprehensible. How can this hospital ensure that patient data is shared securely, that guests in the waiting room can enjoy Wi-Fi and that doctors can communicate with colleagues efficiently in an environment that is chaotic by its nature?
Looking towards the future of sports, we’ve seen an emergence of eGaming in universities that are expanding their athletic offerings past the traditional playing field. Schools are investing serious money and technology in designing high-end eGaming arenas and without a strong wireless connection, colleges could not support the number of PCs and gaming accessories required to practice for the next eSports tournament or study the latest in game design. Networks must be able to handle rapid changes in bandwidth and ensure a game can load within milliseconds, while also supporting other students on campus who simultaneously expect their laptops and cell phones to work without Wi-Fi interruption.
Realistically, there’s no way an individual could understand and correlate all of the analytics from this network in real time, but with machine learning, they’re able to rely on the network doing it for them, quickly and intelligently. Rather than tracking individual components within the network, human operators get an informed view of how the system is performing, augmented by AI that is either recommending adjustments or empowered to make changes on its own.
Switch outpatients or students for guests at a hotel or fans in a stadium. The IT staff at these organizations are being challenged to deliver a consistent, reliable user experience while reducing the workload. With a smart edge experience, the people who live and work on a campus can enjoy more reliable, robust connectivity and the IT professionals in charge of network health and security spend less time making minor tweaks and optimizations in response to the dynamic nature of a university environment. Instead, they save time and money leveraging a network designed to respond to today’s fast-moving and crowded connectivity environments.
Given the examples above, it seems like a no-brainer that organizations would be investing in edge networking. So why is edge networking not universally embraced?
For one, there’s the issue of security. Some businesses argue that the edge is more secure – less data in the cloud or data center means less data exposed during a hack – while others see it as a risk – every IoT device at the edge becomes vulnerable. The solution? Bolstering security end-to-end by implementing a cohesive security ecosystem that delivers integrated and automated compliance checks, threat detection, intelligence and mitigation from the time of IoT device onboarding until completion of the user’s session.
The second challenge to deploying at the edge comes from the difficult transitions between the cloud and on-premise devices. For many businesses, transitioning to the edge requires a complete overhaul of their existing technology. For organizations to adopt “the edge” approach en masse, they must find a solution that allows for consistent management of hardware and user experiences across a wide range of deployment models. In short.
The future of networking is intrinsically tied to the future of technology. Whatever comes our way in terms of AI, virtual reality, IoT and connected cities will all be powered on the back of a network. As the technologies on a network become further integrated with how we function in our day-to-day lives, it’s going to have to work almost flawlessly to support our devices and activity. We can’t afford a network going down when it’s powering a transportation system or monitoring a patient’s medicine intake – a second lost has enormous implications. As we become increasingly more connected as a society, organizations will have no choice but to turn to bolster the network with adaptive solutions, pervasive intelligence, and intrinsic security at the edge in order to remain competitive and to ensure reliable connectivity.
*This blog was originally posted to NetworkWorld.com on June 22, 2018.