Most important networking trend of 2008

Four years ago, a dinner meeting was convened in Sausalito. It included an ex-CTO of Cisco, a social networking guru, a serial entrepreneur, and a Gartner analyst (me). The purpose: figure out the next big thing in network security. While the Italian fare was scrumptious, we failed to came up with anything definitive at that meeting, but, as these things often work out, within two weeks I had that big aha! moment when I realized that the network had to be secured. Just as ISP's and carriers are doing more to manage and block malicious traffic on their backbones, the enterprise should be doing more to ensure that bad packets have no place on their networks. This evolved in to my concept of Secure Network Fabric which I have written about at length.

This past March 25 the year's most important article on networking appeared in the Wall Street Journal. It occupied half a page in the Business Technology section and was titled New Routers Catch the Eyes of IT Departments. Of course it took the 30,000 foot perspective of a business journalist (Bobby White) to recognize the trend in networking gear towards multi-function capability as represented by Cisco's ASA, Redback's SmartEdge, and Juniper's M-series.

Have you ever noticed how industry "experts" tend to get stuck in a rut and continue to see everything through the same lens despite major shifts in markets and technology? Because early multi-function appliances involved running different applications on Linux boxes they forever got pigeon-holed as SMB solutions, not ready for enterprise prime time. In the meantime the major vendors evolve the capability of their gear to accomplish more and more in response to customer driven demand for lower cap-ex and op-ex. Most research firms have been caught flat footed with no predictions of these trends and no actionable advice for end users or vendors who are investing heavily in the new technology.

The article mentions drivers such as elimination of "box sprawl", savings on data center rack space, power savings, and overall operational savings. In my own experience at my most recent position as CMO of Fortinet I was frankly surprised to hear the largest IT departments in the world talk favorably about "vendor consolidation". The article could have also mentioned the cost savings from not having to train multiple personnel in multiple vendor solutions. The market has indeed gone through a fundamental shift.

See the YouTube video below for my explanation of how this all came to be in the security space. (One of five if you care to poke around on YouTube).

If you are an end user you are already looking at multi-function networking gear. You can't help it, that is what the vendors have to offer. If you are a vendor your research and development budgets may have to grow a bit to accommodate these trends. You cannot just focus on load balancing, WAN optimization, threat response, VPNs, or URL filtering. You have to do all of these things well in a box that seamlessly integrates these functions with improved performance and manageability. Not an easy task. If you are a VC here are some questions to ask the next network security venture that asks you for funding:

  1. What routing protocols can your device support?
  2. Do you have native high availability (HA)
  3. What about traffic shaping?
  4. ACLs, Firewall rules, content filtering?

While data center consolidation, WAN optimization, and virtualization are the biggest drivers in IT investments today the collapse of many functions into single appliances is the major trend in the networking equipment space.

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