As the saying goes, “it is difficult to make predictions, especially about the future.” And yet, around this time of year, it has become a ritual of sorts for some of us in the IT industry to attempt to do exactly this. As the calendar approaches its end each year, we look back on the events that have unfolded like a whirlwind since the new year began, and we try to make sense of them all. And then some of us, in a clear act of hubris, pretend that we can project our sensibility about these events into a prediction for the coming year.
Inevitably we are wrong. But that’s what makes something like this interesting – the controversy and debate. So, in that spirit, let us begin. After all, nothing ventured, nothing gained.
By 2016 the Internet was already a ubiquitous part of life for most of us. So, it takes no stretch of the imagination to predict that this trend will continue. However, some of the details will be interesting to watch. For example, in 2017 we can expect to see continued disaggregation of hardware and software leading to more cost-effective networks, at increased capacity, offering more flexible service models across an expanding footprint. We will see advances in wireless network technology, as well as a subtle shift in security postures of enterprise endpoints. Users will be more connected, more often, to the networked resources they need to be most effective.
SDN and NFV Come of Age
In recent years, we’ve seen excitement and rising expectations for “Software Defined Networking” (SDN) and “Network Function Virtualization” (NFV). Then in 2016, we watched as the industry came to materially understand the significant challenges of onboarding, orchestrating, and controlling a software-defined infrastructure of network connectivity and services. Now, as we approach 2017, we can begin to see balanced skepticism and optimism that indicates we are nearing the level of maturity needed to find real solutions.
In 2017 we can expect to see complete software-defined network infrastructure solutions that are commercially available, multi-vendor, based on a viable ecosystem of SDN and NFV components. Proprietary platforms will begin to feel uncomfortably closed as users realize the extent of their lock-in. And adoption will rise, beyond the early adopter service providers, as enterprises and private datacenters begin to see a manageable path to achieve the value of a flexible infrastructure.
With the rapid adoption of smartphones in recent years, and a consolidation of mobile OS platforms, wireless user behaviors have become better understood. At the same time, users are becoming more advanced and their expectations of the network are rising accordingly. In 2017 we will begin to see the fruits of various efforts that unify local Wi-Fi and cellular mobile data networks.
Devices will roam seamlessly between different network technologies, and those technologies will be deployed by a surprising diversity of network operators. Moreover, devices will begin to use multiple networks simultaneously, shifting data traffic seamlessly as network connectivity changes due to capacity, resource connectivity, and mobility. In parallel, a new generation of wireless networks will begin to adapt to user demand by shifting capacity to where it is needed. The new status quo for wireless connectivity, which will begin to emerge in 2017, will be a nearly-invisible unification of different wireless networks behind the scenes of an always-on, high-capacity wireless user experience.
As more and more things are connected to the network, in 2017 a new normal will begin to emerge for networked cars. Opportunities to improve vehicle maintenance and driver convenience are already being explored by carmakers, but the real opportunities are only just beginning to become apparent. In the coming year, users will begin to realize the promise of being able to connect their cars and homes, to share telemetry and driving conditions with nearby vehicles, and integrate more fully with the driver’s IT experience – safely integrating personal calendars, messaging apps, etc., into the driving experience.
Normalization of Things
In 2016 the “Internet of Things” (IoT) achieved significant mindshare, with many people now aware of the promise of a connected home. Thanks to a productive blend of start-ups and well established vendors, our homes can be monitored, climate controlled, and secured with network-connected things. Our smart TVs can now collaborate with our lighting. Our smartphones can tell our home to wake us up and start brewing coffee so we don’t miss that important online meeting, scheduled for the convenience of an earlier time-zone...
But unfortunately, some of the early adopters in 2016 also learned a painful lesson about the need for standardization and open platforms. As some vendors with proprietary cloud-based platforms went out of business or changed business models, users were left stranded. In 2017 we should expect the IoT market to begin to develop standards that make their platforms more secure, as well as more open and sustainable. In addition to easing consumers’ minds, these standards will enable an IoT ecosystem that increasingly appeals to enterprises, allows service providers to create innovative services, and enables advanced use cases that we can only imagine today.
The Blurring of Endpoints, Networks, and Clouds
As the network becomes more flexible and software-defined, with a greater variety of endpoints (e.g., “things”) attached, cloud computing architectures will evolve beyond anything we’ve seen in 2016. Applications on mobile devices will continue to collaborate with centralized cloud-based services, of course. But nascent technologies like mobile edge computing (MEC) will open up a world of new possibilities, such as low-powered devices taking advantage of local compute resources in the network to preserve battery, or mobile devices being pursued by self-migrating instances of low-latency network services. In 2017 we will begin to see the foundations of this hyper-distributed architecture emerge, with massive implications for the future of both network and application architectures.
Machine Learning Is Everywhere
Research into machine learning (ML) algorithms has been advancing for many years, but in 2016 we saw it storm onto the mainstream stage. ML algorithms can now be trained on all sorts of data, thanks to the availability of high-powered processors, “big data” collection architectures, and open source software implementations. And in 2017 we will continue to see ML expand in importance as a fundamental technology driving innovation in every industry. In the context of network technology, ML techniques will be applied to problems that were previously thought to be impractical to solve. The tech talent crunch that we saw in 2016 will get even worse in 2017 as demand rises for the most talented ML scientists and engineers. Combined with SDN and NFV, ML will be a core competency for any vendor trying to build next-generation platforms for vehicular networking, IoT, MEC, cloud, and security.
Shadow IT vs. Security
As consumer technologies become more and more user-friendly and powerful, enterprises have faced increasing levels of “Shadow IT” in which their users bring their own devices, manage their own apps and data, and use their own personal collaboration tools to perform their job. Despite the potential dangers, Shadow IT continues to grow as enterprise IT is unable to compete with features, ease of use, and reliability of consumer services. Shadow IT has become common enough that it even found its way into mainstream news stories in 2016, as illustrated by ongoing discussion of the email habits of candidates in the recent U.S. election.
Of course, in the face of Shadow IT behavior, corporate info-sec teams will continue to struggle. While some organizations will attempt to legislate security via corporate policy, in 2017 the most enlightened companies will recognize the implicit threat of sub-par IT services. The most successful IT and info-sec teams will collaborate on simultaneously modernizing and securing their infrastructure with SDN, orchestrated NFV security services, advanced encryption and identity management, integration of cloud services, and compartmentalization of local apps.
Networked VR and AR
Virtual Reality (VR) and Augmented Reality (AR) have struggled against technical limitations for decades, but 2016 was apparently the break-out year – consumer VR headsets are available for video game systems just in time for the 2016 holiday season, several popular smartphone brands now have VR functionality, and the release of promising new AR systems is on the horizon. In 2017 we can expect to see these VR and AR systems focused primarily on entertainment and education. But as the platforms become more established, toward mid to late 2017, we can expect to see experimental applications in communications, data visualization, and enterprise situational awareness.
A Nod to Tomorrow
So as we leave 2016 in the rear-view mirror, let us turn our focus to a tomorrow that is ours to create. Indeed, this past year we’ve seen an acceptance of many technologies that were once thought to be radically futuristic, while we’ve seen well-established technologies drift into the background as they become ubiquitous. We are entering 2017 with a new slate of challenges and opportunities, both daunting and exciting. And the possibilities are endless. Do you agree?