Data-center networking was already changing prior to the technology challenges brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, and few areas of the enterprise will continue to be affected more than data centers by those modifications in the future.\nThat\u2019s because myriad technologies are driving changes in the data center\u2014everything from heavy demand for higher-speed networking, support for a remote workforce, increased security, tighter management and perhaps the biggest alteration\u2014the prolific growth of\u00a0cloud services.\nCloud is key\n\u201cThe pandemic shifted many multi-year digital transformation and modernization projects to occur rapidly,\u201d said Alan Weckel, founder and technology analyst with the 650 Group. \u201cThe way cloud changed networking 10 years ago is similar to the impact COVID is having now\u2014rapid transitions to new technologies to support new workloads, and humans interacting differently with those workloads. This is especially true in edge data centers.\u201d\nHow to get a handle on multicloud management\nWith increased work-at-home policies, employees no longer sit in the office just a short distance from the data center, Weckel said.\u00a0 \u201cData had to move rapidly, and networking bandwidth and the ingress\/egress needed to be adjusted to support remote workers and remote customers. Networking in the data center must now support more cloud applications and services.\u201d\nIndeed, the name of the game for enterprise data center customers is the cloud, experts say.\n\u201cEnterprises have known for a long time that the cloud model is the yardstick for achieving agility and responsiveness,\u201d said Umesh Mahajan, senior vice president and general manager of VMware\u2019s NSX Networking. \u201cThis model is defined by automation at every level and is typically delivered via software-defined infrastructure.\u201d\nDigital transformation\nThe pandemic has definitely accelerated digital transformation, said Sameh Boujelbene, senior research director with the Dell\u2019Oro Group, and that affects data centers. \u201cDigital transformation will drive significant impact on where the data is created, where it will be analyzed\/processed, and where it will be consumed,\u201d Boujelbene said.\nThe focus will shift from talking about data centers to talking about centers of data, Boujelbene said.\u00a0\u201cA lot of data will be created at the edge. Hence, depending on the latency requirement, it can be either processed and analyzed at the edge, or sent to the cloud,\u201d she said. \u201cAt the same time, mobile consumers want to be able to consume services anytime, anywhere. In other words, IT infrastructure is spreading far and wide, with almost no boundaries.\u201d\nCloud and automation will play a big role in the new data center, according to Mahajan.\u00a0 \u201cThe pandemic only accelerated customers\u2019 efforts to move to the cloud operating model. This model is defined by automation at every level and is typically delivered via software-defined infrastructure. Customers must be able to automate across the full networking and security stack to achieve the full benefit of the cloud operating model. This means switching, routing, load-balancing, security. It means not only inside the data-center network but extending that seamlessly out over the WAN and the internet.\u201d\nEnterprise data-center operators increasingly understand that the network must change to support applications distributed across clouds, said Brad Casemore, research vice president with IDC\u2019s data center and multicloud networks group during the research firm\u2019s recent \u201cFuture of Enterprise Networking: Emergence of the New Normal\u201d webinar.\u00a0\n\u201cAccelerated adoption of clouds for business resilience effectively distributes the data center with significant implications for the network,\u201d Casemore said. \u201cMulticloud networking supports business resilience by offering operational simplicity and consistent policy across hybrid\/multicloud environments.\u201d\nWhere critical data-center resources are located and how the network is evolving to handle those workloads is also changing in a major way.\nGartner wrote last year that \u201cthe role of the traditional data center will be relegated to that of a legacy holding area, dedicated to very specific services that cannot be supported elsewhere, or supporting those systems that are most economically efficient on-premises.\u201d\n\u201cWe see that there still is investment in data centers although cloud networking is becoming increasingly popular,\u201d said Jonathan Forest, senior research director at Gartner. \u201cBringing cloud elasticity and agility to on-premises may bring more life into the data center and moving away from the typical hardware perception.\u00a0 We still believe most organizations will operate in a hybrid mode for years to come with both on-premises data centers and cloud.\u201d\nWhether or not the traditional data center continues to play a role remains to be seen, Mahajan said.\n\u201c[Customers are] going to have workloads running in the cloud, and they\u2019re going to have workloads running on-prem. Different workloads just require different things,\u201d Mahajan said.\u00a0\u201cHybrid cloud will be their path forward. This means building an infrastructure that offers the public-cloud experience on-prem. Even the customers that decide to go to the public cloud will still want to connect back to what they have on-prem, or have the flexibility to use multiple public clouds and not be locked in.\u201d\nOngoing data-center challenges\nWith these core changes, enterprise data center customers face a number of challenges, experts say.\nGartner\u2019s Forest posited several questions IT leaders need to answer: How do those with on-prem data centers achieve more automation and address skill gaps? How will they manage hybrid environments where applications could be deployed anywhere so infrastructure needs to be everywhere? How do they control costs as network teams are expected to do more with less?\nSome of these issues could be dealt with relatively quickly by making it easier to turn on infrastructure features that are included in currently deployed products, Forest said. That could enhance operations, maximize uptime, and reduce support cost. Other issues could be addressed by moving \u201cto more subscription-based pricing over time\u2014to more of an OPEX model vs. a CAPEX model\u2014which helps with price predictability, simplicity and agility. Another trend is the adoption of cloud-based management to simplify how management and orchestration can be delivered. This has been less adopted in data-center networks when compared with WLAN\/LAN and SD-WAN.\u201d\nAutomation will be necessary going forward because manual management is no longer possible with the scale of new data-center infrastructure and its changing requirements, Dell Oro\u2019s Boujelbene said. \u201cAutomation goes hand-in-hand with improving network visibility\/telemetry\/real-time monitoring: You simply can\u2019t automate the network if you don\u2019t know what\u2019s going on in your network,\u201d Boujelbene said.\nArtificial intelligence will also play a role. \u201cAI is needed to analyze the network data and turn it into actionable information,\u201d Boujelbene said.\u00a0\nStaffing is a limiting factor, says the 650 Group\u2019s Weckel. \u201cThe humans in IT cannot scale and are relying on more automation and AI in the future to provision and control their data-center networks,\u201d he said.\nAnd the explosion of employees who work remotely has created new requirements for accessing data-center resources. \u201cNow that the enterprise has become decentralized, it\u2019s critical to view each user as a branch of one,\u201d said Tim Harrison, Director of Technology, Office of the CTO with Extreme Networks. \u201cEvery user needs to have an enterprise-grade branch experience whilst in their home office and, hopefully soon, out at a coffee shop or in a park. The user experience will become even more vital, and the enterprise data center will need to enable that experience. Those who haven\u2019t been able to adapt to the new normal will struggle even more as they fall behind the curve.\u201d\nIncorporating zero trust\nThis is also an important time to re-focus on understanding your data, where it resides, how it is accessed and by whom, Harrison said.\n\u201cAs we become hyper-individualized in our interaction with technology, securing our interactions is much more critical as users access and engage from anywhere. A zero-trust strategy is not a specific technology or solution you can buy from a vendor, but an approach to understanding your data, your users, and their relationships,\u201d Harrison said.\nAs data centers are deployed at the edge or are otherwise distributed, security within them becomes more critical. Things inside the data center have gotten too complex, and complexity is the enemy of security unless you\u2019re a hacker, said VMware\u2019s Mahajan.\n\u201cSo, one of the data-center trends we see is the push to make security part of the network and the drive towards more analytics, visibility, and self-remediation,\u201d Mahajan said. \u201cOperationalizing east\/west protections and driving security up into application connectivity layer will be one of the next big areas of innovation in the data center.\u201d\nThe nature of modern applications and supporting and protecting dynamic and distributed workforces demands that the private data center evolves to look more like the public cloud, Mahajan said.\u00a0\n\u201cCustomers can only do this with software that delivers the full stack of networking and security services,\u201d Mahajan said. \u201cUsing this approach customers, can achieve capabilities such as deploying a 20 terabit scale-out firewall and the ability to support a million SSL transactions in the private data center.\u201d\n\u201cThe days of customer hardware are numbered. The future of the data center is a simple Ethernet fabric providing server connectivity, with everything else in a software-based L2-7 stack running on general-purpose servers and even leveraging SmartNICs,\u201d Mahajan said.\u00a0 \u201cThe interest we see in SmartNICs for offloading networking and security services is off the charts.\u201d\nThe impact of 2020\nWhile big changes are certainly afoot, the impact of the pandemic in 2020 did slow some implementations. For example, network spending by large enterprises paused in the first half of the year due to the uncertainty and the lack of business confidence created by the pandemic, which favored pursuit of an OPEX model (public cloud) vs. CAPEX model (on-prem), Boujelbene said.\n\u201cAlthough the pandemic has accelerated the adoption of public cloud, it is still more economical for these enterprises with large scale to build and manage their own private data centers than to use the public cloud,\u201d Boujelbene said.\nAs for small enterprises, private data centers have already been in a steady decline even prior to the pandemic. This is because it is significantly less expensive for enterprises of this size to lease capacity in the public cloud as opposed to building their own data centers. The pandemic has further accelerated this trend, Boujelbene said.\nIn addition, 2020 sales of the core technology of data-center networks\u2014the ethernet switch\u2014declined year-over-year nearly 2% to $32 bililion, according to the 650 Group.\u00a0\nCOVID-19 constraints, factory shutdowns, and rapid economic contraction and expansion were key themes to last year\u2019s results, Weckel said, but that is changing. \u201cSemiconductor shortages, increased lead times for data-center products, and timing of workers returning to the office will shape the rebound for 2021.\u201d\nAlso shaping the rebound is that many of the trends outlined here will drive the adoption of higher networking speeds.\u00a0\n\u201cWe expect to see growth in customers moving from 10 Gbps to 25 Gbps for server access and from 40 Gbps to 100 Gbps to 400 Gbps in the fabric this year,\u201d Boujelbene said.