Future-proofing networks: writing the history of the future (of networks)

We've been around long enough to have a historical perspective on the evolution of networks, particularly those in an enterprise setting.

May 28th, 2020

This past month we've covered the (digital) transformation of businesses through their networks. We call it "future-proofing" because networks are possibly the most critical infrastructure of tomorrow's world.

We've been around long enough to have a historical perspective on the evolution of networks, particularly those in an enterprise setting. Looking at the future, we couldn't help noticing again and again just how little these monumental changes bring actual change to networking itself.

Everything has changed. Nothing is different.

It's a sentence we keep coming back to. No matter how large a company becomes, or how diverse its networks grow, the fundamental technologies of networking remained the same since the 1980s.

40 years on, and any machine still needs an IP address to connect to the network. To keep up with demand, IPv6 gains (ever so slowly) momentum, but it still has the same core functionality as an IPv4 address did back in the day.

Three decades after, and DHCP is still the service that provides those IP addresses for machines that request them. Even with advances in creating zeroconf networking environments, DHCP (and its younger sibling DHCPv6) remains the prominent "traffic cop."

And the need for human-readable identification is almost as old as the need for a machine-readable one. DNS has changed very little since its beginnings, although we've figured out better ways to manage it than sending disks in envelopes.

Our Head of Sales Haukur Gislason called DDI (the acronym for DNS, DHCP, and IP address management) the "nerve center" of the network, and it's an apt metaphor. Whatever else we humans are capable of doing through our bodies and transform the world around us, at our core we're still just controlling a bundle of nerves.

Maybe it’s time we improved our control, and not what we’re controlling, for better results.

Giants standing on the shoulders of giants (holding up giants)

One of the reasons so few elements of networking have changed is that they work. Even technology that was either thought of as science-fiction or downright phantasmal can build upon these "ancient" foundations. And tech people love efficiency — if it works, why change it?

The other reason is, of course, cost. The explosive growth of the internet and the parallel growth of network dominance created an environment where we can't just "yank the plug" on the very foundations of how they work. Just look at IPv6 adoption, a move that is inarguably inevitable and vitally important for building tomorrow's networks. As time goes by, it becomes more and more expensive to execute the change.

We don't foresee a substantial change in how networks function. Not until the core concepts of computing shift into the quantum realm. (And, while not as far-fetched as people might think, we still have ways before that.)

Still, businesses increasingly look to modernize their networks to sustain growth and maintain competitiveness. DNS, DHCP, and IP address management may rely on technology that has seen minimal fundamental change since the last century, but the way we use them sure has experienced tectonic shifts.

Making network hardware and software human-(a)ware

Modern networks are complex, yet the building blocks are still the same, just scaled and sped up to astonishing levels.

For a long time, the prevailing thought for network management was to shape the network through hardware and software. But as we're already experiencing, that approach started to fray at the seams.

The ambition to predict growth muffled the ambition for growth. Instead of scaling up networks to match the business, businesses scaled back to accommodate procurement processes and engineering timelines. Investments in hardware assets prevent the adoption of better platforms until they reach their end-of-life date or the balance of CAPEX and OPEX tips dramatically.

Same puzzle pieces, a better solution

At least as far as DNS, DHCP, and IP address management are considered, shaping management to match the network is the sensible answer. The complexity of modern networks (their compound nature, as our CEO Magnus Bjornsson put it) is an asset to capitalize on, not a challenge to be overcome.

Simply put, modern networks need software-defined, automation-enabled management systems capable of establishing critical visibility and redistributing control.

  • Software-defined

To successfully shape network management instead of the network, we need to create agile components first. Hardware DNS and DHCP appliances can be replaced by virtual ones, making them flexible and replaceable. Software-defined solutions are inherently more scalable and financially sustainable by not having to pay for fast-deprecating hardware components.

  • Automation-enabled

Human work hours are precious and valuable. Automation in today's world is essential to rein in the cost and re-deploy human decision-making to where it can do more good. And it also prevents human errors from cascading into global outages or vulnerabilities.

  • Establishing critical visibility

Complexity brings confusion. Visibility is at a premium in diverse network environments, where it's the most critical. The approach of shaping management instead of the network treats assets the same regardless of location, thus paving the way for unified visibility.

  • Redistributing control

The key difference between trying to shape the network and shaping the management of the network is that control remains with the operator. Businesses needn't be beholden to vendors and platforms. Freedom to change, particularly freedom of movement for DDI resources, places control to where it should be.

Onward to bigger, better things

Separating the control plane from the underlying hardware and software ecosystem frees up your organization. You can restructure your resources more sensibly, take on new technologies confidently while making the best of your old, and rest assured that disruption brings opportunities and not challenges.

Future-proofing your business is still a tough challenge. But, as we hopefully demonstrated, future-proofing the network that gets you there isn't as much.

With the right tools, anyway.