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Introduction: State of networking for the digital age

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Section summary

Macro global, social, and business trends are combining with ongoing technological innovation to define the strategic importance and required capabilities of tomorrow’s IT networks.

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In a series of memos written in 1962, J.C.R. Licklider, a director at the U.S. Department of Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, proposed an “intergalactic computer network” in which computers around the world would be interconnected to provide quick access to data and programs from anywhere.5

Only a few years later, in 1965, Leonard Kleinrock, Lawrence Roberts, and Thomas Merrill used telephone lines to connect four computers together, effectively creating the first wide area network as well as the beginnings of the Internet.6

More than 50 years later, Licklider’s original vision remains the same, as the network continues to connect global consumers of information and services to applications and data sources.

Everything else, of course, has changed.

Man in business jacket wearing glasses clasping his hands

The evolving role of the IT network

Small green leafy tree with several illustrated circuit lines representing an emerging network of roots Medium-sized leafy tree with a few illustrated circuit lines representing a growing roots Large-sized tree with numerous leaves and illustrted lines representing a large network of roots

Today’s world, driven by the exponential growth in technology performance, has become increasingly connected, digitized, distributed, and diverse. With every “thing” possessing the power to process data, compute models are poised to become dramatically more distributed and networked. And as devices and users are added to it, the value and importance of the network as measured by Metcalfe’s law continues to grow exponentially.

Digital business continues to fuel networked innovations. IDC estimates there will be 48.9 billion connected devices in use around the world by 2023,7 and the 2018 Cisco Complete VNI Forecast predicts that the average amount of data consumed across a network will be almost 60 GB per personal computer per month.3

It’s not surprising that, given this relentless growth, we find that IT teams are reaching a point where the sheer scale and complexity of networks is exceeding their ability to manage and secure them effectively. What’s needed now are new systems that combine technologies such as machine learning, machine reasoning, and automation to simplify operations and augment human decision making.

We are now on the threshold of a new era of networking, when IT can break with the traditional ways of building and operating networks and embrace a future powered by technologies that can solve these challenges in vastly new ways.

Before we examine the emerging network technology, operations, and talent trends that form the basis for this new network, let’s briefly consider the global business and technology trends driving its evolution.

Figure 1  Global business and technology trends shaping the new network

The new IT network
Diagram of five key technology areas being shaped by business and technology trends: automation, multicloud, AI, access/wireless and security

Global trends shaping network demands

A number of global and business trends are shaping the role that the network plays in an organization. Understanding these trends can help IT leaders better prepare themselves for the increasing expectations that business leaders are assigning to the network.

A brief look at some of these global mega trends reveals the demands they will likely place on the network.


According to the World Economic Forum, we are now entering a new, digital-driven era of globalization referred to as “Globalization 4.0.” In this era, digital goods and services, enabled by digital capabilities and artificial intelligence (AI), are the leading exports.8

Icon of a factory robot arm

Network impact:

As the connections between systems, people, processes, locations, and devices get more distributed and complex, the economic value of the network to the organization will increase, while securing and managing the network will become more strategic and more difficult.

According to Gartner, by 2023, over 60% of enterprises will deem networking as core to their digital strategies, up from less than 20% today, deeming networking as a strategic enabler.9

Digital business transformation

More and more businesses are using digital technologies such as analytics, mobility, cloud solutions, and the Internet of Things (IoT) as the foundation for transforming their business. According to the IMD and Cisco Digital Vortex 2019 report, 88% of executives believe that digital disruption will have a major or transformative impact on their industries, compared with only 27% in 2015.10

Icon of a large city skyline

Network impact:

The inherent unpredictability of business requires a network that can quickly adjust to evolving requirements to enable new services, processes, and models.

Business automation

The use of automation and robotics in the coming years will continue to surge as companies look to improve quality, workforce productivity, customer satisfaction, and more. Capgemini Research Institute predicts that wide-scale adoption of automation could result in up to $471 billion in cost savings by 2022 across the automotive, retail, utilities, and manufacturing sectors.11

Icon of a factory robot arm

Network impact:

Because automation of processes is time sensitive and mission critical, the network needs to ensure that packets are delivered reliably and on time.

Business and operational resilience

Because of globalization and digital transformation, today’s organizations are dependent on an increasingly complex web of technologies, systems, processes, supply chains, and infrastructure. Effective business resilience requires continuously and proactively assessing operational risks, establishing and auditing contingency plans, and administering incident response training.

Icon of two hands holding a potted plants sapling

Network impact:

An agile, resilient, and secure network architecture is paramount for safeguarding employees, customers, and partners and is vital to recovering data and quickly reestablishing services and access.


As our world grows more interconnected, organizations are being challenged to grow in environmental sustainability. In addition to the standard metrics, organizations will be judged on how well they reduce greenhouse gas emissions, preserve biodiversity and natural resources, and design products to minimize or recycle waste.

Icon of a arrows piercing the bullseye of a target

Network impact:

Advanced networks offer the promise of greater efficiencies in virtually all aspects of the business, from energy consumption to resource usage to emissions reduction.

Technology trends driving network evolution

Right now a number of emerging trends are dramatically changing the IT landscape. A closer look at some of these key trends reveals the impact they might have on the enterprise network.

The evolving application landscape

Applications and data, of course, are at the heart of digital business, and how applications are developed, hosted, and consumed is constantly changing to meet new business needs.

Here are some of the ways that applications are evolving, and in some ways, reshaping the network:

Apps and data are leaving the premises: Applications and data are being modularized into microservices and moved to multiple public clouds. In some cases, they are also being distributed to the network edge. And they are increasingly being consumed from multiple software-as-a-service (SaaS) providers.

According to the Uptime Institute, half of all workloads will be run outside the enterprise data center by 2021, either in cloud and data center infrastructures or at the network edge.2

Apps are modular and distributed across environments: Monolithic applications are in many cases dissolving into interconnected microservices that are delivered via a variety of virtual and physical workloads, including containers, across the entire enterprise.

It is estimated that by 2021, installed and in-use container instances will exceed 3.5 billion, with over 20% of them running in distributed locations serving edge and IoT workloads.1

Apps are being built continuously and rapidly: For applications developed and hosted on-premises, IT has to accelerate its own infrastructure service creation and delivery to meet the needs of applications and users, all while containing operational costs.

Apps are migrating from physical to virtual to containers to serverless: The rise of containers is exposing application design and deployment paradigms to a much more massive disruption, namely serverless architectures, which is forcing organizations to reexamine how applications are built, the role of infrastructure, and the design of operational processes.

Illustration of rocket blasting off
Illustration of rocket blasting off

Network impact:

With applications and microservices popping up across all domains, the network should be seen more as a growing set of interconnected “nerve clusters” situated where the data is, which could be anywhere along the edge-cloud continuum. The new network needs to be able to securely connect within and between these interconnected “nerve clusters” as well as to fundamentally understand how these new application models work and to dynamically extend application policies across the network to wherever the applications are hosted.

Illustration of a silhouetted hand wearing a smart watch with a smartphone in background


The exploding use of IoT devices, apps, and accompanying data is driving the creation of new distributed compute models that consist of exponentially greater levels of scale and complexity. According to the Cisco “VNI Forecast Highlights Tool,” machine-to-machine (M2M) devices will account for 51% (14.6 billion) of all networked devices around the world by 2022.12

Network impact:

In addition to providing connectivity and security for an incredibly diverse range of IoT devices, network administrators will need to devise scalable and efficient ways of automatically identifying, classifying, and applying policies and monitoring them to ensure proper functionality without impacting or compromising other services running on the network.

Illustration of a person speaking into
  a voice device


The emergence of AI-powered apps for both business and consumer use is leading to a whole new world of connected, intelligent, and automated devices that are being deployed everywhere.

Network impact:

To unlock the full potential of AI in business, more computational processing and decision making have to be done closer to the edge. Depending on performance, capacity, privacy, and even cost considerations, the placement of AI processing and data will range from the cloud to on-premises data centers to the edge of the network.

Illustration of a streamlined bullet


According to the Cisco “VNI Forecast Highlights Tool,” global business mobile data traffic will grow sixfold from 2017 to 2022 at an annual growth rate of 42%.12 Business mobile users will continue to expect immediate and high-performance connectivity anywhere, anytime, and on any device over Wi-Fi and public 4G and 5G networks. At the same time, wireless IoT devices will become increasingly ubiquitous in all aspects of our lives.

Network impact:

Employees accessing cloud applications from corporate and private devices when off network is creating a lack of visibility and control that network and security administrators haven’t faced. And a wave of IoT devices will add to wireless networking requirements in terms of scale, different traffic patterns, and security.

Illustration of a finger tapping a stylized
  touchscreen interface


Cybersecurity threats are becoming increasingly sophisticated and dangerous across a broader attack surface that is no longer contained within well-defined and defended perimeters. In particular, as workloads move off-premises, there is a danger that IT will lose visibility.

Network impact:

While the network will continue to be a powerful ally in identifying and containing threats, network and security operations need to share data and integrate tools and workflows to best combat the continued rise in number and sophistication of attacks. In addition, the network can extend the reach of IT into cloud environments to help protect applications and data even when not directly under their control.

53% of all attacks result in financial damages of more than US$500,000, including, but not limited to, lost revenue, customers, and opportunities, as well as out-of-pocket costs.4

Abstract illustration of VR
  visor with immersive

Immersive Experiences

Increasing video usage and the emergence of virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) for improved collaboration, training, productivity, and remote working experiences will place ever greater demands on an organization’s network.

Network impact:

The network will need to provide the end-to-end bandwidth and low-latency communications and dynamic performance controls required to enable such immersive experiences.

By 2022, Internet video will represent 82% of all business Internet traffic, VR/AR traffic will increase twelvefold, and Internet video surveillance traffic will increase sevenfold.13

Not only is this dynamic technology landscape a reality for all organizations and their customers, but it’s also the engine for the digital economy. It’s no surprise then that IT is feeling the pressure to address all these trends with the right networking technology strategies, operations models, and talent.

Figure 2  Technologies driving new network demands

Diagram representing the impacts of user, security
  and application/data demands that effect digital

The need for a new kind of network

A crawling caterpillar A chrysalis on a branch A flying butterfly

In this increasingly demanding environment, there is a critical need for IT leaders to migrate to a radically new approach to networking.

For an organization to flourish in the digital economy, the network needs to be able to adapt quickly to changing business requirements. The network needs to support an increasingly diverse and fast-changing set of users, devices, applications, and services. It needs to seamlessly and securely onboard this diverse set of devices and deliver the desired user and application experience.

It also needs to ensure fast and secure access to and between workloads wherever they reside. And for the network to function optimally, all this needs to be achieved end to end between users, devices, apps, and services across each network domain—campus, branch, remote/home, WAN, service provider, mobile, data center, hybrid cloud, and multicloud.

Which means that organizations need a new, integrated architecture for each network domain, one that is customized to meet the specific needs of that domain and that provides a way to communicate and enforce consistent policy across all domains.

Figure 3  Four primary objectives for the new network

Table identifying four important objectives for the
  network: align to the business, abstract
  complexity, assure performance, and reduce risk

Cisco experts envision the emerging network architecture.

The majority of today’s networks are not yet ready to meet the demands of this emerging digital era. In our 2019 Global Networking Trends Survey, we found that while 39% of IT leaders believe that their networks are very well aligned to meet the demands of digital business, only 19% of network strategists believe likewise.14

Yet there is reason for optimism. John Apostolopoulos, Cisco’s CTO for enterprise networking, anticipates a relatively short transition from today’s largely rigid, manually operated infrastructures to more agile, software-driven architectures that can “continuously adapt to meet the changing demands of the applications and services the organization depends on."

What will this emerging network architecture look like? According to Ravi Chandrasekaran, SVP of engineering, enterprise networking at Cisco, “Networks will operate as a system with increasing levels of autonomy, taking into account their own state, the dynamic state of all the users and applications, and the vast array of possible options."

Key to achieving this more autonomous state will be AI, which will help IT teams quickly respond to changing network conditions, whether that means automatically changing traffic routes, requesting more bandwidth, requiring a policy change, or even refusing a new service request.

Over time, by taking advantage of systemwide intelligence and automation, the network will become completely transparent to the user. It will simply be there, delivering secure connectivity to the services they need at the required level everywhere, at all times.

While Apostolopoulos admits there is still a long way to go before networks will have all the intelligence and power they need to deliver on this promise, he believes that the technical advancements needed to bring together AI-enabled service assurance, controller-based automation, natural language processing, and significant improvements in network security are well underway.

We found that while 39% of IT leaders believe that their networks are very well aligned to meet the demands of digital business, only 19% of network strategists believe likewise.14

Use case for the new network

In 2025, a leading-edge enterprise network will be able to take a requirement communicated in natural language from any line of business and automatically translate that into a set of policies and automated actions that will ensure that the business need is continuously met across the network—all without impacting any other existing services. A network with these kinds of capabilities is what’s commonly known as an intent-based network.

Here’s what a hypothetical use case for an intent-based network might look like.

Overview: An organization wants to use wireless IoT optical sensors to support a new business innovation delivered through an AR application. Here’s how business need and intent would be translated into network action.

Figure 4  Use case for the new network

Diagram listing seven components of an intent-based network: business need, business intent, intent translation,
  network policies, automated device classification, automated segmentation, and assurance and remediation

The state of network architecture

Where do organizations stand today in their journey toward a more advanced network that can meet the demands of the digital era? Cisco’s digital network readiness model provides a standard five-stage maturity model to help IT organizations assess their current level of network readiness and help them plan where they need to be in the future.

The model can be applied across multiple network readiness categories such as architecture, access, WAN, assurance, network security, etc.

Figure 5  Cisco digital network readiness model
Maturity model ranging from best
  effort to connectivity-driven to
  software-defined to service-driven to

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  1. IDC FutureScape: Worldwide Enterprise Infrastructure 2018 Predictions, IDC, 2017.
  2. Uptime Institute Annual Data Center Survey, 2019.
  3. 2018 Cisco Complete VNI Forecast, Cisco, 2018.
  4. Cisco 2018 Annual Cybersecurity Report, Cisco, 2018.
  5. J.C.R. Licklider,” Internet Hall of Fame, 2013.
  6. “History of Online Education,” The Quad, 2019.
  7. IDC Worldwide Global DataSphere IoT Device and Data Forecast, 2019–2023, IDC, May 2019.
  8. “A Brief History of Globalization,” World Economic Forum, January 2019.
  9. Dennis Smith, Dale Kutnick, Lisa Pierce, Invest in Networks to Achieve Digital Business Success, Gartner, 2019
  10. Digital Vortex 2019: Continuous and Connected Change, IMD, 2019.
  11. Reshaping the Future (automation use case survey), Capgemini Research Institute, 2018.
  12. “VNI Forecast Highlights Tool,” Cisco, 2017.
  13. Cisco Visual Networking Index: Forecast and Trends, 2017–2022 (white paper), Cisco, February 2019.
  14. 2019 Global Networking Trends Survey, Cisco, 2019.