Part 1 of 2
Arthur C. Clarke’s famous witticism that “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,” could easily apply to the plethora of applications that are at our fingertips. By touching an icon on a piece of glass you can summon a ride, order a meal, show the world what you are seeing at that very moment, buy almost anything (you can afford), transfer funds instantly, or stream a symphony. These apps are created by enterprises to make interacting with them as frictionless as possible, which in turn improves your experience and the likelihood of doing business with them again and again.
Enterprises are attempting to digitize as many business processes as possible through customer- and workforce-facing apps to gain agility, quicken the pace of innovation, cut the costs of doing business, flummox their competitors, and improve customer experiences. In some cases, digitization means reducing the number of steps and the time it takes to complete a business process. In other instances, it unites disparate information resources, making them available from anywhere at any time in the cloud. In all cases, it’s also essential to provide access to sensitive information only to authorized people as needed to complete a task. The familiar mobile apps you use every day represent the edge of digital transformation of many business processes. Every interaction with those apps sets in motion a digitized series of transactions between multiple processes to fulfill a request. Without knowing what actually happens behind the glass screen you are interacting with, it really does appear to be magic. But those same apps, carefully designed and developed to inform and enchant you, depend on another kind of ubiquitous magic—the networks that connect people, devices, and information globally.
Networks Transform Business Processes
Data networks are the foundation of every digital transformation initiative.
- With mobile customer-facing apps, commands or requests for information travel over cellular or Wi-Fi connections, then to the internet or secure IP tunnels, ending at a business’ data center or cloud platforms where transactions set off a chain of events to fulfill requests.
- With internally-focused applications, as in a hospital, doctors and nurses initiate requests for patient information and lab results using mobile tablets that communicate via the campus Wi-Fi to a secure cloud repository, using a network segment that allows only authorized personnel to access the records.
- On a manufacturing plant floor, hundreds of sensors and robotic IoT devices communicate on a separate low-latency network segment, receiving instructions while collecting, analyzing, and reporting on fluctuations of machine processes to improve efficiency and quickly detect anomalies.
- In a retail store, a wireless network with location-detecting access points monitors employee locations to better manage customer service levels, send inventory data to warehouses to replenish stocks, and welcome shoppers with targeted offers on their mobile devices.
The business processes that depend on networks as the foundation of their functionality are everywhere. In fact, there is not much that can be accomplished today that does not depend on network connectivity. Remember the last time your phone/tablet/laptop lost connections to the apps, data, and people you rely on for daily existence? Did business continue as usual? Unlikely.
The dependence on always-on connectivity is the fundamental reason that Cisco, the foundation of the internet and enterprise networking, re-architected our IOS XE network operating system to create a common code platform for switching, routing, wireless, and wired infrastructure. At the controller level, IOS XE provides programmatic access and visibility into the telemetry and performance analytics running on wireless access points and Catalyst switches. This evolutionary step, along with fast, high capacity, secure hardware, ensures that networks are the dependable foundation that makes enterprise digital transformation projects possible.
Controller-First Orchestration: A Flexible Approach to Managing Multi-Domain Connectivity
In addition to redesigning the network software stack in IOS XE, Cisco employs a controller-first approach to network orchestration. In older architectures, IT has to individually program each network device with access and security policies, a very time-consuming, repetitive process. It’s also inflexible as devices and data sources are constantly joining or moving to match changing business processes.
With a controller-first approach, policies for access and security are programmed once in a cloud-centric (Cisco vManage) or wireless controller (Cisco Catalyst 9800) and pushed to all the access points, routers, and switches. IOS XE provides programmatic access and visibility to the controller into the complete suite of features running on the network device. This simplifies the management of all the devices accessing the data plane, regardless of the domain—wired or wireless in campus, branch, or cloud. It also enforces consistent policies across the network while enabling the ability to rapidly adapt to changing business requirements.
For business transformation projects, controller-first provides the ability to connect and manage distributed workloads across multiple domains and platforms. As more applications and data sources move to public cloud, SaaS, and IaaS platforms, enterprises want to rapidly develop secure containerized applications to work anywhere, preferably close to data sources and the workforce that needs access to them. Developing specific types of apps for digital transformation is, of course, different for each enterprise, but being able to easily connect them together from end to end is the job of the network
Running Applications on Top of the Network to Take Advantage of Data Proximity
In any given transformation project, applications and data sources can exist as virtual machines or containers in a cloud, in on-premise data centers, in colocation facilities, and at the cloud edge. Making it easy to securely connect to each of these domains is the work of the enterprise and wide-area networks. A global Cisco customer found that while it used to take weeks to set up connectivity to new cloud applications, the process now takes a few hours with Cisco SD-WAN managing the connections.
One of the newest features of IOS XE and the Catalyst family is the ability to run containerized applications directly on routers, switches, and wireless access points. Running data intensive apps right on network appliances puts the processing close to the data sources, telemetry, and analytics that provide the inputs and outputs, avoiding the need to collect and send all the data to a cloud or data center for processing, providing faster results while generating less traffic.
Speaking of distributed processing, many applications in the IoT realm benefit from processing power at the cloud edge, such as a branch retail outlet, where devices are collecting data on inventory and customer habits for analysis. The IOS XE network provides the ability to run applications on the edge router, sorting and analyzing data before sending only a small percentage of conclusions to the data center or cloud platform for additional processing.
Next week, in part 2 of this post, we’ll look at how the next-gen network improves access to business applications via cloud onramps, enhances security everywhere, and take a look at future innovations in IOS XE for multi-cloud computing.