Digital Transformation and the End of Network Incrementalism

For decades networking has been defined by hardware, so change has been an incremental process, rigid and inflexible. And when change has occurred, it’s almost always happened under the classic enterprise hardware “refresh-and-reconfigure” cycle. But now a broad transformation is sweeping through networking. Just six months ago, thought leaders from across IT gathered at future:net in Las Vegas to discuss the future of networking. Now business pressures and technology innovations are combining to accelerate the arrival of this future, and it all begins with digital transformation.   

Digital transformation is changing the way businesses operate and challenging networking to keep pace. A fundamental issue is that current, hardware-based networks are just not designed for the needs of a digital business operating in a mobile, multi-cloud world. In fact, according to Bruce Davie, VMware VP and CTO, APJ, “What businesses ultimately demand is a new way of doing networking.”

Software Changes Everything

The central fact is that digital transformation is a software-driven revolution. It is software that is fueling the new capabilities that are redefining everything, from the meaning of ‘workplace’ to the way applications are designed, built, and delivered.

“Networking is central to digital transformation,” says Davie. He points to how applications have evolved from monolithic stacks to distributed systems, and to the new ways that these apps behave, in containers or in public clouds. “Applications are being deployed in all kinds of different places—on-premises, in the branch, in various different public clouds,” Davie explains. A challenge for organizations is the need to deliver networking and security services to all of these different kinds of applications, regardless of their location.

The End of Incrementalism

Many enterprises are starting to realize that continuing to retrofit hardware-based networks to satisfy these new requirements is just not going to work, short or long term. Not only will that strategy fail to work from a technical point of view, but it will put the organization at risk of falling behind its competitors.  

Another challenge of trying to do what Davie calls “networking the old way” is the reality that networking and digital transformation “is not just about all the new cloud-native applications; the future is going to be very heterogeneous.” In the typical enterprise network, depending on what works for the business, some applications might be in the cloud, some mission-critical applications may remain on-premises, some apps may be containerized, while others will be legacy.

In this new world of digital transformation and the associated networking challenges, the solution can no longer be simply the traditional upgrade from an organization’s favorite hardware vendor. Buying and deploying a new hardware box is not going to help organizations deploy applications faster into the cloud with their appropriate security and compliance measures baked in. Refreshing and reconfiguring the network so that it can incrementally do one new task cannot meet the needs of a network that is simultaneously handling multiple tasks. “This is the end of incrementalism,” Davie says. “You can’t keep on doing things that way because that doesn’t address the new realities.”  

The Future Network

The biggest change, though, may not involve technology as much as it will people and processes. As networks become more software-based and API-driven, they will require a near-revolutionary culture shift in how organizations manage, invest in, and operate their networks. The network of the future will transform IT from being gatekeepers of services to the providers of capacity from which the lines of business self-serve. Investments will be driven by business needs, and not by the fact that a specific piece of hardware is out of date. 

This is a big leap no one, including Davie, denies. But he says that organizations should not be afraid of this jump—VMware has the tools and expertise to get across that gap. “The reason it’s a big gap,” he says, “is because we’re shifting from an old way to a new way.” The gap is not really about the technology, “it’s that organizations are going to have to change a lot of things at once,” Davie concludes. “It’s not that organizations can just do it step-by-step, and just keep moving incrementally forward. They are going to have to make this one continuous jump.”

It is a jump that requires all of the teams—network, security, server, virtual desktop, digital workspace—to work together to program the network: the software-based, infrastructure-independent network of the future. It is the jump that signals the end of incrementalism.