The digital business era is here, and it’s changing the business landscape faster than ever. Businesses that embrace digital transformation are more profitable and quickly become market leaders, while those that don’t risk falling behind and becoming irrelevant. This is why digital transformation has become a top mandate for almost every IT and business leader. The ZK Research 2019 IT Priorities Survey found that 90% of businesses currently have digital transformation initiatives underway (Exhibit 1), up from 84% in 2017.
In the digital business era, sustaining market leadership is no longer about having the best products, the lowest prices or the best people. Rather, the industry leaders will be determined by their ability to understand market transitions and capitalize on them faster than the competition.
A critical step in the journey to becoming a digital business is becoming an agile organization. Doing so requires the IT infrastructure to be dynamic and able to adapt when required. The challenge is that an organization can only be as agile as its least agile IT component, which today is the network—particularly the access edge. Software-defined networks (SDNs) have transformed the data center, and software-defined wide-area networks (SD-WANs) have modernized the WAN, but the access edge remains as it did decades ago.
Historically, the network edge has been considered of low importance. It connected workers’ computers, printers and a few other devices to the main network, but most user data and applications resided on computers. The network was used to periodically fetch new information or to support “best effort” services, such as email. In this scenario, the access edge played a role of base connectivity and was considered to be of low value. Today, the role of the access edge is completely different and should be considered mission critical. These are the top factors driving up the value of the access edge:
- Almost all applications are networked. When applications and data resided on a user’s workstation, a poorly performing network had no impact on productivity. Today, increasingly more applications have moved to the data center, into a private cloud, out to a public cloud and to other places. This means the quality and reliability of the network edge have a direct impact on application performance. ZK Research predicts that within three years, 74% of business applications will reside in public or private clouds, further increasing the value of the network edge.
- The Internet of Things (IoT) is now mainstream. IoT has moved out of the operational technology (OT) shadows of a handful of verticals and has become a core component of most businesses’ digital transformation strategies across all industries. As IoT adoption increases, so will the number of connected endpoints. The ZK Research 2019 IoT Device Forecast predicts that by 2026, there will be 87 billion connected IoT endpoints. Almost all of these devices connect at the network edge—therefore, problems at the edge could significantly impair IoT applications.
- WiFi has become pervasive. In the past, workers had to choose between high-speed wired connectivity or the convenience of WiFi. The Wi-Fi 5 and Wi-Fi 6 standards removed that decision, as WiFi speeds are now at parity with those of wired connections, giving workers the best of both wired and wireless. Also, many mobile and IoT devices are wireless only, meaning they have no wired interface. Many businesses have expanded the scope of WiFi from the carpeted offices to everywhere including lobbies, cafeterias, outdoor locations and every other place the organization spans. The combination of these trends has made WiFi now the primary access network, with the edge being the point at which all of these devices connect with the company network.
- Security is shifting to the access edge. Legacy networks had a single ingress/egress point for network traffic. Securing the environment meant putting a massive firewall at that single point and scanning all traffic coming into or leaving the network. Today, mobile devices, IoT endpoints and cloud computing have created many new entry points and shifted them to the access edge. Network security also must shift to the edge to maximize its effectiveness.
CISCO CATALYST 9000 FAMILY TRANSFORMS THE ACCESS EDGE
San Jose–based Cisco has been the market leader in networking for decades. According to Synergy Research Group, Cisco currently holds a little over 52% share in Ethernet switching. Giving it deep experience in the changing dynamics of the access edge.
Recently, Cisco upgraded its widely deployed Catalyst line of access switches and added new line of Catalyst Access Points and Wireless Controllers. The new Catalyst 9000 family delivers on the vision of intent-based networking with some advanced features today, but it also provides a path to a fully autonomous network in the future. The series includes the following products:
- Catalyst 9100: High capacity WiFi6 access points (APS) with a form factor for companies of all sizes
- Catalyst 9200: Stackable form factor designed for branch offices and small to medium businesses
- Catalyst 9300: Stackable form factor fixed for branches and mid-size to large campuses
- Catalyst 9400, 9500 and 9600: Fixed and modular campus core and distribution
- Catalyst 9800 Wireless LAN Controller (WLC): Highly reliable and secure controller for Catalyst 9100 APs. Supports flexible deployment models, including the clould.
- Catalyst Embedded Wireless Controller (EWC): An embedded controller on Catalyst Access Points that makes it fast and easy to deploy WiFi without the need for a physical controller
- Catalyst 90 Watt UPoE+: Extends the IEE Power over Ethernet plus (PoE+) standard to double the power at 90w enabling a broader range of devices to be powered via an Ethernet cable available on the entire Catalyst 9000 series switches.
Product highlights include the following:
- All of the Catalyst products run Cisco’s latest operating system, Cisco IOS XE, on its programmable unified access data plane application-specific integrated circuit (UADP ASIC). This chip was specifically designed by Cisco to meet the demands of a unified access edge. Cisco IOS XE is an open and programmable network operating system that has become an industry de facto standard.
- The products offer flexibility of management, as they can be managed through the Cisco DNA Center single pane of management tool, the local web user interface (UI) or the traditional command line interface.
- Always-on capabilities are provided via stacking and stateful switchover, along with cold patching for minimal downtime and PoE when rebooting.
As the demands on WiFi have grown, so has the need to raise the bar on what enterprise-class WiFi is. To accomplish this, Cisco designed the Catalyst 9800 controller with the following three tenets in mind:
- Always on to eliminate downtime: The controller can do software updates without having to be turned off or rebooted, which eliminates planned downtime. Also, access points (APs) can be upgraded or added without having to restart the system.
- Secure solution: Cisco recently announced a feature called Encrypted Traffic Analytics (ETA) that can find malware in encrypted traffic. This feature is now available on the WiFi network via the Catalyst 9800 controller. Also, micro and macro segmentation has been automated to keep wireless assets separated.
- Deployment flexibility: Businesses are constantly changing, and customers need choice and flexibility. The Catalyst 9800 controller offers that, as it can be deployed on premises, in a private cloud, in a public cloud service such as Amazon Web Services or embedded in a Cisco Ethernet switch. Whatever the customer preference, Cisco can support it.
CONCLUSION AND RECOMMENDATIONS
The digital transformation era is here, and businesses need to adapt to survive. Today, competitive advantage is based on a company’s ability to be agile, adapt to changes and make rapid shifts to capture market transitions. Most of the digital-enabling technologies—such as IoT, cloud and mobility—are network centric, which raises the value of the network, particularly the access edge. If the business is to harness the full potential of these technologies, the access edge must evolve, with the first step being implementing a unified edge. Shifting to a unified access network needs to be top of mind for CIOs today, as it is the foundation for digital transformation.