This is the first of a six-part Future of Work Networking series.

To reimagine the future of work, rather than focusing on what we currently do – our applications and workflows – first we consider how technology itself will evolve, then we reimagine how these changes will impact our lives.

Consider how the typewriter evolved into the word processor. The word processor made it easier to create documents. And if we only considered the application of “writing”, we would end up with many of the powerful office tools we have today. However, what has fundamentally changed writing is connectivity. When computers could communicate with each other, writing could evolve from a single-person application into the collaborative experience it is today. Those organizations that looked beyond the application to the technology underlying word processing are the ones who have led the industry forward.

So, let’s take a look beyond today’s applications and use cases to understand how technology is evolving. And then, from this perspective, let’s reimagine the future of work to explore the new capabilities that become possible and the ways these change the way we work together.

  • Part 1 of this series covers connectivity and how the network will become increasingly transparent to the people who depend on it for work and education.
  • Part 2 looks at how greater mobility is right at our fingertips.
  • Part 3 explores a future of “zero trust” and privacy.
  • Part 4 extends our vision to IoT and Smart Buildings.
  • Part 5 examines how a Software-Defined Architecture and programmable controllers enhance IT’s experience of managing networks from the enterprise to the edge.
  • Part 6 considers how we can reimagine our perspective of what is possible.

Let’s begin our journey.

Reimagine Connectivity

IT teams across the world are concerned about how they are going to accommodate the “return to work”. Through the pandemic, the network has had to support employees working from home. 4K Video (and in the not-so-distant future 8K) has become a common part of nearly every remote worker’s day. As these employees physically come back into the office, IT faces the challenge of providing the hybrid access and video services these workers need wherever they choose to work.

Further complicating the challenge is the increasing presence of the Internet of Things (IoT). As the workspace becomes more intelligent – including PoE powered smart lights, intelligent motion sensors, and a host of other smart building devices – there are even more devices that must be managed on the network.

In the past, networks were built for managing data traffic. Today’s networks, however, are about delivering a better experience for everyone on the network by enabling them to share ideas and build value together for their coworkers, customers, and partners. Through digitization, networks need to serve up powerful applications and make new use cases possible so that we can all work in collaborative and innovative ways.

The network also needs to become transparent. The workforce needs to be able to connect to applications and data from any device, anywhere in the world. They need to be able to transparently connect with the right policies that protect sensitive resources and then get to work. And they need to be able to do it securely without a plethora of passwords to get online.

The first step is to reimagine connectivity for the next decade.

Full Spectrum Wireless

To reimagine the world in this way, we need to make next-generation technologies like Wi-Fi 6 and 6E available everywhere. Consider the inefficiencies of legacy Wi-Fi. Devices just start broadcasting to communicate. If they collide with another device, both back off. As density increases, collisions occur more frequently. At about 50% utilization, Wi-Fi 5 and before starts breaking down with noticeable and unacceptable delays.

Wi-Fi 6 addresses this problem by scheduling access to the network. The network lets each device know when it can communicate, decreasing conflicts. This significantly reduces delays and increases overall utilization of bandwidth.

5G is also a scheduled media. In fact, both Wi-Fi 6 and 5G are based on the same OFDMA technology, although their stacks differ. In some respects, Wi-Fi 6 is basically 5G over Wi-Fi. However, because 5G involves different licensed intellectual property, a 5G chipset costs ~$60 compared to ~$5 for Wi-Fi 6. Thus, Wi-Fi 6 is often the preferred choice for applications within range of access points, particularly in a controlled campus environment.

By leveraging integrated Wi-Fi, cellular, and Private 5G, the network can provide full wireless spectrum connectivity. This is the key to creating an application experience where the network is “always on” and “always secure”.

Ideally, connectivity is technology-agnostic, meaning devices can connect to the network regardless of their wireless technology. In addition, the access network needs to be able to apply policies and identify services across these technologies even as devices move among them. This enables the workforce to roam seamlessly without interruption to services.

This capability is the result of reimagining connectivity. When the network is software-defined, it is possible to tether different technologies together to create full spectrum wireless connectivity. A software-defined approach also future-proofs the network by making it possible for new technologies – such as upcoming Wi-Fi 6e and private 5G – to integrate with existing networks. We will then have the freedom to roam with our devices without having to think about connectivity at all.

Transparent Connectivity

A software-defined network enables existing use cases to evolve as new technology is introduced into the network. Consider a smart factory. The Wi-Fi network that controls factory equipment also carries the traffic from all the laptops, cell phones, and IoT devices in use. This means the real-time signals controlling robots are competing with less time-critical data such as web searches, email, social media, etc. As private 5G becomes available, smart factories will be able to shift real-time traffic to 5G to ensure the highest reliability.

With connections that are software-defined and flexible, new cases like this become possible. For example, with location services, the network can determine exactly where a device is operating. This capability is already part of Cisco DNA Spaces. In this way, the best connectivity technology can be automatically defined by the requirements of the use case.

We’ve already seen the impact of being able to “plug in” new wireless technologies with the rise of Bluetooth and Zigbee in the workplace being embedded in Wi-Fi access points. Access points no longer support just one wireless technology but rather provide integrated connectivity. This is a key step for preparing for the future as we continue to expand into multi-radio, multi-spectrum access.

Catalyst Future Ready Access Stack
Catalyst Future Ready Access Stack

Wired and Wireless Working Together in a Connected Digital Infrastructure

As wireless speeds increase beyond 1Gig, existing switching infrastructure can become a bottleneck. Cisco Multigigabit Technology in Catalyst switches provides an infrastructure that can handle the increasing traffic that the new wave of 6 and 6E APs will be transmitting to provide a high quality experience for video and collaborative applications.

Smart building automations are rapidly being integrated into the network infrastructure using both Wi-Fi access points and Cisco Catalyst 9000 series switches that provide the data and power foundation that supports the diverse IT and OT systems into a Connected Digital Infrastructure. Universal Power over Ethernet (Cisco UPOE and UPOE+) is the “fourth utility” that provides a reliable 90-Watt low voltage DC source that is essential to power the latest smart building technologies such as LED lighting, auto-adjusting shades, and room occupancy sensors. We will do a deeper dive into PoE and smart buildings in part 4 of this series.

To help IT and OT teams manage the connectivity infrastructure, Network Assurance, delivered by Cisco DNA Center, has the unique capability to monitor the health of connected PoE devices and other wired and wireless devices throughout a building. This gives the Ops teams the much-needed tools for optimal energy planning and proactive troubleshooting to keep employees productive and safe and lower the energy footprint of the campus.

Connected Everywhere. Everyone Connected.

Secure, full spectrum wireless connectivity will free the workforce to connect securely with the devices of their choice to the applications and data they need. Combined with technology like Cisco DNA Spaces, connectivity will be more transparent and seamless. And protected with integrated security from ISE, the workforce can be confident data and devices are protected.

This is connectivity reimagined.

In The Future of Work, Part 2, we’ll reimagine mobility and how continuous connectivity is a necessity for the hybrid workforce and students on campus.

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Greg Dorai

Senior Vice President & General Manager, Cisco Networking Experiences - Campus Connectivity

Networking Experiences