The last few years have seen a remarkable shift in the enterprise network industry.
For years, the only real advances were around the speeds available to people. While other industries like data centres were experiencing seismic shifts that would change their world irrevocably.
The data centre shift happened in two stages – first, virtualisation allowed us to use a single computer to do more than one job. Second, cloud computing allowed one computer to do more than one job for more than one organisation.
These changes were both based on the right software being available to drive the hardware. Having faster servers was nice; using their new found multi-tasking abilities to cut bills in half made people sit up and pay attention.
And lots of people did, including some of the biggest technology companies in the world. They started using software to paper over the cracks in the hardware and before you knew it, just about any computer could become part of the solution.
Networking companies realised that this model was applicable to their world as well; they could use software to deliver some of the key functions that had been happening in hardware since the dawn of time1. This is where Software Defined Wide Area Networks (SD-WAN) come from.
Here, we take a lot of the functions that were running in hardware, convert them to software and manage them from the cloud.
The Wide Area Network (WAN) connects different sites together, and this is where network innovation initially focussed. The Local Area Network (LAN), is used to join the devices on one site together and allow them to connect to the WAN.
What if we could convert a lot of the hardware functions that we used to deliver LAN services previously into software too and manage them from the cloud as well? Well, we can and it’s now known as SD-LAN.
The LAN is an area where small gains can lead to large improvements. This is due to the large number of devices that can make up a corporate LAN.
Offices will typically have a mix of wired and wireless devices. These will be physically spread across the entirety of their estate and will have been refreshed and upgraded incrementally when the need materialises. Add in the fact that wireless devices (understandably) have challenges talking through walls and the number of devices on site grows even further.
Another huge area of growth is in the Internet of Things (IoT). This is where devices communicate with central services without the need for a human to push the button.
The range of IoT devices available today is huge and covers things like security cameras, motion sensors, printers and heat detection cameras. Lots of these devices cross the LAN to get to the WAN, increasing the volume of traffic and devices again.
The ability to manage all the devices that make up your LAN from a single place is a huge benefit. Being able to control your policies and define a common configuration across all locations simultaneously is the networking equivalent of sliced bread.
It saves time, reduces risks and improves user experience – benefits that seem worth the wait.
The big change in LAN, apart from the cloud management we’ve talked through already, is the advent of WiFi-6.
This is the latest version of the standards that govern how wireless connectivity works. The current generation of radios can run at speeds of almost 10Gbps. That’s fast enough to keep even the most bandwidth hungry video conference running in Ultra High Definition.
That’s not all WiFi-6 brings though. It has better modulation or orthogonal frequency division multiple access (OFDMA), and multi-user multiple input multiple output (MIMO) to make it a ‘dense deployment’ solution. This means that it’s much better at serving lots of users simultaneously; something that previous generations struggled with.
The other big tick in the box for Wi-Fi 6 is that it supports signals that travel further. Combine this with the fact that we can support more users per device and you can reduce the number of wireless LAN devices at each site significantly.
So, the future is bright for wireless LAN users. They will experience faster, more reliable wireless connectivity from a wide range of devices.
Fixed LANs will still be needed to join the wireless devices together and connect them to the WAN, but they are likely to shrink in numbers. Smaller sites in particular will evolve to a model where everything is wireless, including the connectivity to the network which will use 5G as the access method of choice.
Imagine that – a networked office without a single wire carrying the information from the users to anywhere in the world. Whatever next?
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1 Network time that is, serving networks all over the world since 1985.
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