The Internet of Things is booming across industries, from automotive to finance and retail. Everybody’s hot about sensors, wearables, trackers, and other smart devices. What’s left in the shadows is networking. It doesn’t sound as exciting as serverless computing, connected cars, or volumes of shared data, but it’s something that powers all of this fancy tech.
Businesses feel the pressing need to collect data reliably and quickly. And the extensive use of IoT devices is driving the development of more advanced connectivity options. Next-generation tech such as 5G, low Earth orbit satellites, mesh networks, and edge computing promise unimaginable improvements in terms of bandwidth and speed. At the same time, the shift to software-defined networking (SDN) and network function virtualization (NFV) results both in the simplification and increased cost efficiency of network infrastructure.
Advanced networking is becoming a cornerstone of enterprise digitalization. The 2018 IT Priorities Survey from TechTarget revealed that upgrading networking foundations was among the top priorities of 44% of respondents. Businesses are looking to expand the diameter of their pipes and modernize their networks with specific software.
Drivers of next-generation connectivity
The proper functioning of IoT devices and, moreover, the ability to leverage the masses of data they gather hinge on the quality of network connections. What can we expect from the industry in a year or two?
Fifth-generation wireless technology has been in the public eye for some time already. We can expect to see practical 5G applications a few years after the first trials — in approximately 2022. Fifth-generation wireless networks bring higher speed, greater responsiveness, and the ability to connect a multitude of sensors and smart devices. Seventy-two mobile operators were testing 5G in 2018, with the majority of 5G deployments announced for post-2020 (64 markets over the 2021–2025 period).
What’s interesting is that enterprises will be able to use 5G privately, replacing Wi-Fi local area networking. This will enable more advanced control over robots, automated plants, enterprise sensors, etc.
Large geo-based satellites may soon be replaced by small low Earth orbit (LEO) satellites introduced by the tech giants SpaceX, Amazon, and OneWeb. GEO satellites are located at a distance of around 22,000 miles from Earth whereas LEO satellites are only 99 miles to 1,200 miles away, providing for lower latency and a higher connection quality. Strategic placement of satellites may help provide internet connectivity to rural areas and reduce internet costs in general. LEO technology won’t need any specific physical infrastructure, but the technology itself is extremely costly. OneWeb, for instance, plans a total investment of $3.4 billion. Hopefully, this race for space internet supremacy will bring high-speed internet access to consumers around the globe by 2021–2022.
Today’s most used network topology is a star, where devices are connected to a central access point. A mesh topology, on the other hand, presupposes that nodes are connected, i.e. creates a decentralized network￼. It allows peer-to-peer communication and therefore eliminates the need for a central point. As a result, devices in mesh networks serve as routers, forwarding traffic between each other.
Mesh systems are designed to fit perfectly into big areas such as enterprises, where one access point is not enough. And since devices in this type of network can retransmit signals, it opens up possibilities to connect multiple sensors in huge warehouses or even cities and operate in crowded and remote areas. Decentralization is another advantage that opens up business use cases that require advanced safety. All in all, mesh networks are a perfect background for implementing more complex IoT networks.
Edge computing is a networking philosophy that suggests bringing computing as near to the data source as possible. It’s a real game changer for IoT networks. Instead of requesting instructions from cloud infrastructure, devices can fulfill the majority of tasks themselves, creating a distributed computing system. The more processing can be done on a device itself, the less this device has to rely on the cloud, and the faster its response will be. Other perks of edge computing are increased cost-efficiency and privacy.
Self-driving cars depend on edge computing. Latency, bandwidth, and security issues make it impossible to feed data from all of a car’s sensors and cameras to the cloud and wait for an answer. Doing so would definitely hinder driving. Cars have to be data centers themselves, processing as much information on the move as possible while still connecting to the cloud for updates.
Game-changing network architecture
With new connectivity options, innovative architecture comes to the stage as well. Software-defined networking and network function virtualization use automation and virtualization to create more responsive networks. SDN provides for control of networks via scripting tools or third-party tools. More than that, it’s agile, responsive, and vendor-neutral since it uses open standards.
NFV, in turn, replaces dedicated hardware for network services with virtualized software, meaning that routers, load balancers, etc. can be replaced with software running on a virtual machine. As Cisco puts it, SDN and NFV differ in how they separate functions and abstract resources. Both concepts, though, make networking architectures more flexible, which is precisely what’s needed for advanced connectivity.
Impact of tomorrow’s connectivity on today’s strategies
IoT and advanced connectivity result in an enormous amount of data that should be stored, analyzed, and acted upon. This, in turn, can lead to changes in your infrastructure and data architecture, as your current system will not be able to manage these new data volumes efficiently. With SDN and NFV, your connectivity service provider landscape can take on a different profile. Some organizational changes are inevitable to support new operational realities.
To implement trendy technologies like robotics and industrial automation, virtual and augmented reality, telematics, extensive use of sensors, and so on, computational power and low latency are critical. Edge computing can solve this problem. With it, IoT devices will be able to process data at the edge of networks. In turn, 5G will increase the volume and variety of connected devices within plants and enterprises.
Switching to new approaches will raise new challenges, among them hiring the right specialists. Organizations will have to search for SDN and NFV expertise as well as people with backgrounds in edge computing, cybersecurity professionals, and so on.
The potential impact of advanced connectivity options is revolutionary for businesses. But to be profitable, enterprises should carefully plan their strategies and answer some key questions:
- Which connectivity options can we use (and where can we use them) to solve our problem?
- What ROI can we expect?
- Will this still be profitable if we run up against challenges?
A roadmap that visualizes an organization’s plan for advanced connectivity together with methods for and stages of its implementation should be a starting point for transformation.
Next-generation connectivity technologies can undoubtedly boost a network’s flexibility, velocity, and bandwidth. Even though the implementation of these technologies requires changes to existing infrastructure, when deployed as part of a well-planned connectivity strategy, advanced networking is a significant step on the path toward new IoT applications. It will enable organizations to move their business-critical data from where it’s generated to where it’s needed faster and at a lower cost.