UPDATED 18:55 EDT / MAY 29 2020

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The post-pandemic ‘new normal’ starts with the network

As an analyst, I get asked a lot about what the new normal looks like. It’s fair to say that the COVID-19 pandemic has been the single biggest disruptive force in business of my 30-year career, perhaps ever.

The only thing that may have rivaled it was Y2K, but that had a well-defined end date and problem and we had years to prepare. COVID-19 came in fast and hit us hard, and businesses of all sizes were left scrambling to figure out what to do.

This week, Extreme Networks outlined a comprehensive program to help customers adjust to the new normal. The interesting aspect of its plan is that it revolves around the network, which makes sense since Extreme is a network provider.

This is a stark change for the role of the network, because it’s being positioned not just as the center of an organization’s information technology strategy but as its overall future business strategy. Historically, most business and even IT leaders didn’t give a hoot about the network.  It was thought of as the “pipes” of a company – a commodity or a tactical resource at best. Part of this reason is that networking is hard and its somewhat of an intangible. Applications are easy for users to understand because they use them every day, but the network is just kind of there and we almost expect it to be. 

One might read the press release and think it’s just a network vendor trying to position its products better, but I think there’s real merit to businesses becoming network-centric for a number of reasons. The first and most notable is that the shift to network-centric businesses had already started but COVID-19 accelerated it.

There has been no hotter topic within business leader circles than digital transformation, and most of the digital building blocks – cloud, the “internet of things,” mobility and even artificial intelligence, are in fact network-centric.  COVID-19 accelerated digital transformation plans as companies had to ensure the business could operate differently.

Recently, Microsoft Chief Executive Satya Nadella said that “we saw two years of digital transformation in two months,” indicating how aggressive companies are being with new technology. COVID-19 certainly moved the ball along, but the digital era had arrived, and it was pulling the network along with it.

Looking beyond digital transformation, the network does play an important role in helping organizations adjust to the new norm. One of the important questions to answer is what exactly the new norm looks like. I believe it will be constant change.

The best analogy I can think of is that work will look like college, where people work from home a lot and then come into workplace for meetings, to collaborate or other cases where face-to-face interaction is required. This will create a highly fluid and transient user population redefining work to be more of an activity than a thing.

That in turn puts an emphasis on workplace agility, where remote work sites will need to be managed as if they are part of the corporate workplace. IT professionals need the right tools to manage an ever-changing workplace.

They include high-performance WiFi as well as the necessary visibility and analytics to see the end-to-end network and isolate the source of problems. It’s important to understand that any weakness or deficiency in the network anywhere will be magnified because it will impact the performance of networked applications, which is almost all of them today.

Also, the network can play an important role in mitigating the risk in coming back to the office, which is important from facilities, human resources and legal perspectives. Network infrastructure captures and collects a wide range of data, including indoor location information.

Businesses that implement strict social distancing guidelines can track the volume of people in certain areas, including cafeterias, lobbies, conference rooms and other places people meet. The occupancy management capabilities can also be used track how people move enabling companies to set rules on pedestrian directional flows, no go zones and even alerting when rules are broken.

Another function for the network is a light version of contact tracing. This was a niche topic that has exploded in the media since the pandemic began. Although in-building WiFi can’t be considered a full contact tracing solution, it can provide high-level information on where users roamed, who was within a certain proximity and the like. The data could also be fed into a third-party contact tracing solution as a data source.

Lastly, the network plays a key role in the success of IoT. There’s the obvious connectivity, but it’s more than that. The network could track a connected endpoint and track its movement to ensure it went through the proper sanitizing process before being put into use. For example, a hospital could ensure a ventilator went to the various cleaning and checking stations after being used in a patient’s room that had COVID-19. Also, businesses are planning to use robots more to automate cleaning and to minimize staff exposure.

COVID-19 has changed and will continue to change the world in ways we could never have imagined. Businesses need to rethink the role of the network and consider it to be a strategic asset that can make the difference in being successful in the “new norm” or struggling to survive.

The network does more than connect. It sees all and provides the visibility to understand whether applications are performing, workers are social distancing and the company is secure.

Zeus Kerravala is a principal analyst at ZK Research, a division of Kerravala Consulting. He wrote this for SiliconANGLE.

Image: geralt/Pixabay

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