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A Realistic Approach to Achieving Flexible Networks for Today and Tomorrow By @LeonAdato | @CloudExpo #Cloud

A realistic timeline of what we should be focused on today, and what we should be preparing for tomorrow and beyond

With another New Year upon us, I've found that as an industry we're once again spending a lot of time looking forward, which is a good thing, but also not enough time grounded in the present or even the past, which absolutely can be a bad thing, especially for network administrators. After all, as the old adage goes: "Those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it."

Remember when the Internet became ubiquitous in the workplace? We weren't prepared for that spike in capacity and had to scramble to fix existing issues to accommodate the influx of network usage. The same thing happened with BYOD - once people started sharing resources among an explosion of new devices, it exposed existing problems within our networks that needed to be resolved before BYOD could really be successful.

Here we are again - new, impactful trends such as IPv6, the Internet of Things (IoT) and software defined networking (SDN) are cresting the horizon. To ensure we're not caught off guard and that our networks are prepared for both today's challenges and those to come, it's important to build a sensible network roadmap - a realistic timeline of what we should be focused on today, and what we should be preparing for tomorrow and beyond.

A Sensible Network Roadmap
Today (now): Security, Stabilization and IPv6
Today's most pressing issues are security, stabilization and IPv6. Interestingly, at a high level, all these involve taking inventory of the network. For security, this inventory will allow you to understand vulnerabilities in need of remediation to avoid security issues that will only continue to worsen in the coming years. Proper network inventory also helps you improve stabilization without having the luxury of more money, staff and time to devote to the network. And last, as organizations undergo the inevitable switch to IPv6, having this inventory will allow you to know which devices are IPv6-enabled and which need to be upgraded, resulting in the least amount of negative impact on the network and the end users who rely on it.

Tomorrow (next 6-12 months): Hybrid IT and Shadow IT
Over the next year, the majority of companies will continue migrating parts of their infrastructure to the cloud while continuing to maintain some critical services on-premises. This reality, known as hybrid IT, is creating a new language that you need to come to understand ahead of the transition. Furthermore, as IT shops explore cloud-like offerings, such as rapid deployment of virtual machines, end users increasingly expect an experience similar to that of Microsoft Azure or Amazon Web Services. This means higher expectations for things that IT can't provide because they don't have the time or bandwidth to say "yes." When that happens, internal departments are frequently looking to other non-IT experts within the company who say "yes" (Hello, Shadow IT!) and in the process introduce new vulnerabilities that must be addressed.

Beyond (next 2-3 years): IoT and SDN
With billions of new devices expected to connect to the network in the coming years, we are on the verge of another BYOD-like scenario (only bigger) for the network, and there is much to do to prepare networks before IoT reaches widespread adoption. Like IoT, SDN is on the horizon, but not as imminent as issues and trends such as IPv6 and hybrid IT. While readying infrastructure for the virtualized network takeover is something we'll have to worry about eventually, it's best to focus on the realistic timeline of trends that need to be addressed.

Realistic Actions for Network Preparedness
There is no silver bullet for addressing all the network issues and trends on this roadmap, but there are some overarching tools and best practices to consider that will help:

  • Automation: Automation is your friend. Networking is already complex and, as discussed, it's only going to get more so. Tools that help by automating various network management routines can greatly alleviate your burden and free up your time to focus on tasks that absolutely can't be automated and look toward the future. Take IP address management as an example. Too many IT organizations are still using archaic methods, such as manual tracking via spreadsheets. How can one even begin to think about the challenges of transitioning to IPv6 when still mired in the manual management of every single IT address, and the address conflicts and other issues that come along with it.
  • Monitoring: Monitoring is really key across the entire roadmap, but especially stabilization and hybrid IT. Constant monitoring of the network will provide a complete view of traffic, plug-ins, wireless heatmaps and the like, making stabilization achievable amidst growing complexity. Similarly for hybrid cloud, monitoring tools arm you with knowledge about which elements of the infrastructure make sense to migrate, from both a cost and workflow standpoint.
  • Configuration management: Another tool that is often overlooked for stabilization is configuration management. If you have a tool to back up your configurations on a regular basis, you can compare recent with past backups to identify changes in the network, pinpoint anything that is unwarranted and better understand your environment. This way, you're also optimizing the network, keeping an eye out for security concerns and meeting compliance standards.
  • Be disciplined: When it comes to security, there isn't one tool that will fix all of your problems - there's a host of them. Instead, practice discipline and maintain it across all network functions. Secure the network, be diligent and ensure that attackers don't have the opportunity to cause additional problems.
  • Pilot early, pilot often: Hybrid cloud can bring some new costs to the table, but get involved in these discussions whether you want to or not. Also, pilot judiciously - pilot early and pilot often. If you want to move to the cloud, use friendly people who are willing to grow and test with you. Find people who are invested in the results and have a desire for hybrid IT.
  • Earn trust: Treat end users as colleagues and not as customers. Shadow IT is happening because internal departments think they'll get shut down by IT. The best approach is to honestly listen to requests, assess the likelihood of being able to complete them and transparently explain why demands can or can't be met, or what it would take in order to deliver on a request. Be available and be honest, but most important, be trustworthy so end users come to you.
  • Look ahead: Since IoT and SDN are in the more-distant future than other trends, as an industry we don't yet have all the appropriate tools, strategies and processes in place to alleviate potential issues now (don't worry, they'll come). But as always, you should educate yourself ahead of the trend so you're equipped to test and prepare. While IoT and SDN will likely come in full effect in as of yet undetermined forms, at least you'll know enough to begin executing.

Addressing these challenges in the now will set you up for success. It can be alarming to think of the future and to know how to prepare, but having automation and monitoring tools in place and implementing best practices will help you to achieve a flexible network. Prepare by testing, expand by learning and grow with an open mindset that is reflected to your company. This way, you'll be in a position to realistically tackle network issues today, tomorrow and beyond.

More Stories By Leon Adato

Leon Adato is a Head Geek and technical evangelist at SolarWinds and is a Cisco® Certified Network Associate (CCNA), MCSE and SolarWinds Certified Professional (he was once a customer, after all). His 25 years of network management experience spans financial, healthcare, food and beverage, and other industries.

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