Whether it be for a video conference or cloud applications – companies in all sectors depend on a stable network infrastructure which ideally can be adapted quickly and according to requirements. But while companies nowadays source IT services dynamically from the cloud, cross-site company networks often lag behind. “They are sluggish,” said Dr. Thomas Zinner from the chair for IT and communication networks at the University of Würzburg. “Their functions are tied to special hardware. Provision is slow and requires specialist personnel – and in many cases telephone agreements between various network operators.” Companies therefore need time and patience if they want to link new sites, establish encrypted connections or increase bandwidths. After all, the network operator has to do a lot of the work manually: “It takes time to program routers and switches, to set up new firewalls and to send WLAN access points around the word by courier,” said Zinner who is carrying out research into the network technologies of tomorrow.
Sluggish networks hold back business
The Digital Business Readiness study which was published in 2015 highlights the issue: when asked to name the biggest IT barriers, 19 percent of employees at 100 large German companies said obsolete system and network architectures, making it the fourth most commonly cited problem. And according to a survey of administrators carried out by the Dimensional Research consulting company in 2016, changes to the company network had an adverse effect on business several times a year at three out of four companies. In the future, however, changes to wide area networks could be made much more quickly – thanks to a technology from large data centers.
The operators of data centers had a problem: at the beginning of the 21st century, they were looking for ways to cope with unforeseeable peak loads. Their idea – it should be possible to control, configure and administer all components in a local area network (LAN) centrally in order to ensure optimum data flows at all times. A “controller”, a central technical network coordinator, provided the solution. Instead of configuring routers and switches manually and allowing them to control the network, the central controller watches over everything: it controls and configures at the same time. Like a signal box in a railway, the controller optimizes the flow of data in the network via software. This means that the controller sets the points to ensure that information always flows smoothly and takes the intended path. If there is a bottleneck at some point in the network, traffic is diverted. In the event of danger, it blocks individual sections of the network such as ports or IP addresses. If a fast train is approaching, it is given priority. “Separating the data forwarding and control layer makes network management simpler, more efficient and quicker,” said Zinner.
Programmable networks boost digitization
The idea of a network that can be controlled centrally via software (SDN) was born. Today, more than ten years on, the first SD-WAN offerings which provide the solution originally from the data center for entire wide area networks are coming onto the market. This means that cross-site company networks can be centrally and automatically controlled and flexibly modified. The network functions – firewalls, gateways or load balancers – also run as software on standard servers at the company site. They can be adapted as necessary in a very short space of time.
Virtual network technology thus makes it possible to manage networks in the same way as companies source cloud services – always scaled appropriately at the push of a button. Thanks to software-defined networking, bandwidths can be adjusted much more quickly and data flows can be prioritized more easily. As a result, networks not only keep pace with IT – they also boost the ongoing digital transformation.
Network services and IT are merging
According to experts like Zinner, software-defined wide area networks (SD-WAN) are the future: “The SD-WAN automatically brings sites into a company network – as easily as gateway devices can be set up or virtual machines from the data center can be connected.” The technology market researchers at IDC also predict a more than rosy future for the SD-WAN: flexible and easy to manage and scale, it not only increases cost effectiveness but also accommodates increasing requirements and low budgets.
If companies switch to SIP trunks, they should consider a PBX (private branch exchange) and a centralization of all connections as well. It is a decision that will save them more than just voice channels.