Digital transformation is a catch-all phrase that describes the process of using technology to modernize or even revolutionize how services are delivered to customers. Not only technology but also people and processes commonly undergo fundamental changes for the ultimate goal of significantly improving business performance.
Such transformations have become so mainstream that IDC estimated that 40% of all technology spending now goes toward digital transformation projects, with enterprises spending in excess of $2 trillion on their efforts through 2019.
Every company’s digital transformation project is unique. Whether it’s transforming a company’s marketing and sales processes by using machine learning to garner deep insights on each and every customer, or building a seamless experience across sales channels and revamping distribution channels to provide the best products and resources to customers, a digital-transformation project is going to be dependent on as well as have an impact on the enterprise’s network infrastructure.
Many companies assume their networks can handle these changes. But can they? Do these new ways of working strain the existing network infrastructure by imposing new requirements for agility, cloud access, security and mobility?
Gauging Confidence in the Network Post-Digital Transformation
A recent survey of more than 1,300 IT professionals dared to ask about the impact of digital transformation on each respondent’s enterprise network. Having just conducted its fourth annual state of the WAN survey at the end of 2019, Cato Networks issued the report, Networking in 2020: Understanding Digital Transformation’s Impact on IT Confidence in Enterprise Networks. Steve Taylor, publisher and editor-in-chief of Webtorials.Com, and Dr. Jim Metzler, principal at Ashton, Metzler, and Associates, were instrumental in designing and the analyzing the results from the portion of the survey relating to digital transformation. There are some worthy observations here for network managers.
The study looked at networking and security priorities for IT professional in 2020. As part of that process, the study sought to identify how ready enterprise networks are for the digital era. According to the report, “The modern business has data and users residing everywhere. And just as the enterprise network provided performance and security to data centers and branch offices in the past, so, too, it must provide performance and security to the cloud and mobile users—both hallmarks of digital initiatives.” Without a network that delivers the right infrastructure with the right performance and security levels anywhere, digital transformation efforts can run aground.
1,333 respondents took part in the survey in late 2019. Qualified respondents were those who work in IT and are involved in the purchase of telco services for enterprises with an SD-WAN or MPLS backbone (or a mix of MPLS and Internet VPN). The vast majority of the respondents say they are moderately or extremely involved in their organization’s digital transformation initiatives.
More than half of respondents identified working for companies with a global or regional footprint. Nearly half of respondents work for companies with more than 2,500 employees. The vast majority said their organization spans 11 or more locations, with a quarter of the respondents from companies with more than 100 locations. All respondents’ companies have some cloud presence and most have two or more physical data centers.
To gauge the impact of digital transformation on the network, the survey asked a number of qualitative questions pertaining to network characteristics that include agility, security, performance, and management and operations. For each characteristic, the study looked at the “network confidence level”; that is, whether the respondent feels more or less confident in the network’s capabilities in that area following the deployment of the transformation project. The study segmented respondents by the type of network they operate—MPLS, hybrid (MPLS and Internet-based VPN), SD-WAN, or SASE (secure access service edge, pronounced “sassy”). SASE converges SD-WAN and other networking capabilities and a complete security stack into a global, cloud-native platform. (Disclosure: Report publisher Cato Networks delivers an SD-WAN service and also bills itself as the world’s first SASE platform.)
I’ll get to the results about network confidence level in a moment. First let’s look at some general information disclosed in the report:
- Budgets are growing in 2020. Respondents report that both their network and their security budgets are expected to grow in 2020. That’s good news, considering both areas are being asked to do more.
- Site connectivity continues to drive the major networking challenges for 2020. This includes bandwidth costs, performance between locations, and managing the network.
- Mobility is becoming strategic for network buyers. The importance of managing mobile and remote access grew significantly since the last annual survey. Addressing this need has become another top networking challenge.
- Security is an essential consideration for WAN transformation. Enterprises must have a multi-edge security strategy that includes defending against emerging threats like malware/ransomware, enforcing corporate security policies on mobile users, and full awareness of the cost of buying and managing security appliances and software.
- The most critical applications are now in the cloud. More than half (60%) of all respondents indicate that their organization’s most critical applications will be hosted in the cloud over the next 12 months. This has a huge impact on how users will access the cloud via their WAN.
- Digital initiatives are driving a rethinking of legacy networks. More than half of the respondents whose organizations still rely on MPLS say their organizations are actively planning to deploy SD-WAN in the next 12 months to lower costs and support new business initiatives.
Digital transformations rattle network confidence
To better understand why enterprises are abandoning MPLS and what lessons can be derived for any WAN transformation initiatives, respondents were asked to rate a series of statements evaluating their perceptions of their networks’ agility, management and operations, performance, and security. The respondents were then grouped by their network in order to assess the change in network confidence pre- and post-digital transformation.
With one exception, respondents express lower confidence in their networks post-digital transformation. This is true in areas of MPLS’s presumed strength, such as performance, and it’s even true for hybrid networks as well as for SD-WAN. As organizations roll out digital initiatives, they uncover the weaknesses in their existing networks, such as a limited ability to address cloud connectivity or mobile user access.
According to the report, the only exception is when respondents run a SASE architecture. They express greater confidence post-digital transformation. SASE’s convergence of SD-WAN with security, cloud connectivity, and mobility is well suited for digital transformation but may only be appreciated when required by the business.
Going back to the network characteristics of agility, security, performance, and management and operations, let’s look at how each one is perceived in terms of respondents’ network confidence.
- Network agility – This characteristic includes the ability to add new sites, adjust available bandwidth, add cloud resources, and generally adapt quickly to changing business needs. It’s understandable that respondents with an MPLS-based network would rate their confidence in network agility as low, but confidence among respondents who deployed an SD-WAN dropped the most when asked about rapidly delivering new public cloud infrastructure. The opposite is also true: SASE’s built-in cloud connectivity is a major factor in respondents being more confident in their network agility post-digital transformation.
- Security – It’s critical to protect users and resources regardless of the underlying network. MPLS does not protect resources and users, and certainly not those connected to the Internet, leading MPLS-only respondents to be significantly less confident in their network’s security post-digital transformation. SD-WAN respondents also demonstrate lower confidence in security post-digital transformation, largely because SD-WAN on its own fails to restrict access to specific applications or provide the advanced security tools needed to protect all edges – mobile devices, sites, and cloud resources. By contrast, SASE confidence grew post-digital transformation. Converging a complete security stack into the network allows SASE to bring granular control to sites, mobile, and cloud resources.
- Performance – Delivering cloud resources presents problems for MPLS and SD-WAN. Users expect their cloud application experience to be as responsive as on-premises applications. This point plays a significant role in performance confidence. When asked if respondents can provide access to cloud-based resources with the performance and availability comparable to internally hosted resources, respondents with MPLS, hybrid WAN, and SD-WAN networks showed significant drop-off in confidence post-digital transformation. On the other hand, SASE solutions that include native cloud optimization improve cloud performance out-of-the-box, making those network owners more confident that they can deliver what users need.
- Management and operations – Respondent confidence was high before digital transformation but dropped off post-digital transformation across all network types except for SASE. According to the report, the lack of redundant last mile connections with MPLS leaves sites susceptible to cable cuts and other last mile problems. Adding Internet VPNs to MPLS improves last mile access but still does not allow organizations to automatically overcome last mile issues without downtime. SD-WAN and SASE are better able to overcome last mile issues with active/active configurations.
Digital transformation initiatives can vastly change network traffic patterns, bandwidth requirements, access locations, and security needs. These changes might not be apparent until the project is fully deployed. Every organization needs a network infrastructure that provides adequate performance, security, agility and manageability to support digital initiatives, now and into the future. Some network architectures are better at providing those characteristics than others are. IT organizations that want to be confident in their network’s ability to meet the future need to consider areas such as cloud, mobility and especially security when transforming their WANs today.