Enterprise networking is on the leading edge of the digital transition that is quickly overtaking the enterprise and the data economy in general. This can be both good and bad for the network industry as we know it today because even as it presents opportunities for new products and business models, it risks sending old ones into obsolescence.
It is fair to say, though, that none of the emerging technology initiatives, everything from Big Data and the IoT to intelligent data platforms and high-speed automation, would be where they are today without software defined networking (SDN) and other forms of network abstraction.
But while most pieces of the enterprise data stack are facing dim commercial outlooks due to consolidation and increasingly automated management structures, this trend seems to be blunted, for the moment at least, in the network sphere. A new report from Grand View Research has the global enterprise networking market - which it defines as everything from switches and routers to WAN technologies and security - growing at a rapid clip to top $64.6 billion by 2024. Networking, after all, is the lynchpin that connects increasingly distributed resources together, so as the enterprise data footprint expands ever outward, the need for increasingly sophisticated platforms will grow even as the platforms themselves become more streamlined and less costly.
This isn't to say that networking is unaffected by the shift to virtualized infrastructure. In fact, market leaders like Cisco are now committed to reinventing themselves as software companies due to the increasing likelihood that networking hardware will become commoditized as the digital transition unfolds. In part, this is due to leading carriers like Verizon and AT&T signaling their desires to become software entities themselves over the next few years, and this will undoubtedly trickle down to regional access, wide area and data center infrastructure as well. If early results are any indication, the change is already paying off: last month, Cisco reported its third consecutive quarter of double-digit growth.
But don't get the idea that this will be smooth sailing for Cisco or any other network vendor going forward. Software is a rough-and-tumble business where newly developed code can quickly supplant legacy systems. HPE, for instance, is already taking direct aim at Cisco's networking dominance with a new partnership with Arista Networks, says CRN's Steven Burke. Arista will become a "preferred networking partner" for HPE's software defined data center program, building on the work the two have already done on converged architectures and other integrated solutions. Meanwhile, Cisco and Arista remain embroiled in a patent dispute over their respective switch platforms.
And on the wide area, companies like Riverbed are quickly revamping themselves into software providers as well, the better to extend agile networking infrastructure beyond the data center and into the world of connected devices and distributed cloud architectures. Riverbed recently launched a number of software-defined systems, including the SteelConnect 2.0 SD-WAN solution and the SteelCentral SaaS platform designed to enhance visibility and performance management to wide area environments. As well, the SteelFusion system is designed to extend software-based networking to edge infrastructure.
From the server rack to the edge, then, it seems that the future enterprise will no longer be tethered to physical infrastructure, relying instead on dynamic, abstracted resources to drive productivity and bring value to data and processes.
In many ways, this will be a more difficult environment in which to develop successful business models, but at least the dull drudgery of managing network hardware will be gone.
Arthur Cole covers networking and the data center for IT Business Edge. He has served as editor of numerous publications covering everything from audio/video production and distribution, multimedia and the Internet to video gaming.