Looking ahead to the network technologies of 2023

What’s the single most important thing that enterprises should know about networking in 2023? Forget all that speeds-and-feeds crap you hear from vendors. The answer is that networking is now, and forever, linked to business applications, and those applications are linked now to the way that we use the Internet and the cloud. We’re changing how we distribute and deliver business value via networking, and so network technology will inevitably change too, and this is a good time to look at what to expect.

Growth in Internet dependence

First, the Internet is going to get a lot better because it’s going to get a lot more important. It’s not just that the top-end capacities offered will be raised, in many cases above 2 Gbps. Every day, literally, people do more online, and get more interactive, dynamic, interesting, websites to visit and content to consume. Internet availability has been quietly increasing, and in 2023 there will be a significant forward leap there, in large part because people who rely on something get really upset when it’s not working.

With “goodness” will come “richness.”

Adobe, which produces software that enriches the user experience online, had a great quarter in large part because the Internet is more important every day. That enrichment isn’t going to stop in 2023.

Enterprises will increase their dependence on the Internet, both as a conduit for sales and customer support and, increasingly, as a way for their own workers to access core applications. During COVID, one of the less-reported changes enterprises made was to start using the Internet to support work-from-home requirements. They then figured out that if they supported workers via the Internet, they could take their traffic directly into the data center and bypass VPNs. Thus, the Internet started to erode VPN traffic growth, and that’s going to continue and accelerate in 2023.

Pressure to tackle Internet latency

The growth in Internet dependence is really what’s been driving the cloud, because high-quality, interactive, user interfaces are critical, and the cloud’s technology is far better for those things, not to mention easier to employ than changing a data center application would be. A lot of cloud interactivity, though, adds to latency and further validates the need for improvement in Internet latency.

Interactivity and latency sensitivity tend to drive two cloud impacts that then become network impacts. The first is that as you move interactive components to the cloud via the Internet, you’re creating a new network in and to the cloud that’s paralleling traditional MPLS VPNs. The second is that you’re encouraging cloud hosting to move closer to the edge to reduce application latency. That puts pressure on the network to reduce the latency it contributes, which is one justification for 5G, but also a reason to wring latency out of wireline broadband services.

Virtual networking abounds

All this application stuff swirling around the Internet and the cloud makes any fixed network strategy difficult. In fact, if you wanted to name a single trend to characterize 2023, you’d pick “virtual networking becomes networking” as far as users are concerned. In the cloud, in branch locations, and in the data center, the mission of connectivity will shift from the “physical network” to the virtual. Companies’ “networks” will be an overlay on multiple, diverse, physical networks. Applications will connect to virtual networks, and it’s virtual networks that will provide us security and that we’ll manage to assure information access and content delivery.

This doesn’t displace MPLS VPNs immediately, but it does necessitate elevating connectivity management above them; think virtual-network-over-MPLS. Since network connectivity is what users see of a network service, this pulls differentiation away from the physical transport elements of the network (think plastic pipes connecting a flashy bathroom to the public mains). That takes a critical step toward converting virtual network technologies into the framework for network-as-a-service, or NaaS.

NaaS right now is what I call a UFO; a technology that isn’t going to land in your yard and present itself for inspection, leaving you free to assign whatever features you like to it without fear of contradiction. We’re going to get so many conflicting definitions for “NaaS” that it will sound like a political debate, but in 2023 we can expect to see a gradual firming up. There are a number of possible NaaS models, some little changed from current capabilities and some that decisively merge network and cloud concepts. We’ll come down somewhere in that continuum of models, maybe by the end of the year, and where we land will determine just how effective networks are in improving or work and lives beyond 2023.

Cloud-hosted security takes hold

What about security? The Internet and cloud combination changes that too. You can’t rely on fixed security devices inside the cloud, so more and more applications will use cloud-hosted instances of security tools. Today, only about 7% of security is handled that way, but that will triple by the end of 2023 as SASE, SSE, and other cloud-hosted security elements explode. We can already see a shift of security focus toward the cloud and also toward broader use of virtual networking that can link those pesky agile cloud elements with workers who are increasingly mobile. Even SD-WAN, which launched as a way to use broadband Internet to replace MPLS in creating VPNs, is now used at least as often as a means of connecting among and to cloud applications.

Incumbent vendors have the advantage

Who wins in 2023, vendor-wise? The incumbents, where there are established network commitments. The big players, where there are not. Yes, enterprises are looking for alternative network strategies, but they’d really like to see those coming from some giant that they can trust, preferably one they already use. Since economic uncertainties aren’t going to magically dissolve in 2023, enterprises will be even more risk-adverse than usual.

If you do want to evaluate new network technologies and models in 2023, be prepared to drag the stories out of your vendors. Only 9% of enterprises in 2022 said that the primary competitor to their network vendor had an “innovative” response to the future. That’s down from 15% in 2021 and from a high of 22% in 2019. Given that we arguably have more innovative network technology offered today than ever before, this sad number seems to demonstrate that vendors aren’t really promoting a vision of the future that’s worthy of our tech advances. That’s too bad because we’re going to face that future, even need it, in 2023.

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