UPDATED 23:40 EST / MARCH 28 2021

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COVID-19 has prompted an explosion of digital projects, says Cisco report

COVID-19 fast-tracked digital transformation projects around the world, on average three times faster compared with other years. Now, chief information officers and information technology decision makers are focused on optimizing the investments made during the pandemic and accelerating digital agility.

A recent report by Cisco Systems Inc. explores the need for digital agility — that is, delivering powerful technology in a simpler way to reach more people. The report is based on a survey conducted by Censuswide in November 2020, gathering insights from more than 23,000 CIOs and IT decision makers — ITDMs for short — across 34 global markets. It identifies key priorities for organizations post-COVID-19 to connect enterprise users securely across all environments — cloud, software-as-a-service, on-premises and edge — and enable them to work from anywhere.

The first priority is achieving business resilience and digital agility. Throughout the pandemic, organizations accelerated their move to the cloud to become more agile. Access to applications and data has become mission-critical, which is why IT leaders are investing in business resilience. They want to achieve business resilience by pushing apps to the cloud (62%), adopting SaaS (53%) and rewriting apps to be cloud-native (50%).

One of the interesting byproducts of the pandemic is that it changed the very nature of business continuity. Prior to COVID, business continuity involved planning to run a business for a short period of time with a subset of people and applications. Post-COVID, business continuity has shifted to continuous resiliency, where a company needs to run at full capacity for an indefinite period of time. Many IT leaders realized the cloud was the only way to accomplish this and pushed a number of businesses that were sitting on the fence over to the cloud side.

More than half (58%) of CIOs and ITDMs surveyed by Cisco predict that up to half of their IT budget will be spent on additional investments. In 2021 and 2022, these investments will include network security (55%), cloud apps (54%), cloud security (50%), multicloud infrastructure (46%), and collaboration (45%).

The second priority is converting to an application-first infrastructure. Hybrid and multicloud environments are becoming the norm, with 83% of organizations leveraging at least one multicloud and on-premises solution or at least one cloud-first or cloud-native solution. Offering a consistent operational model that goes across on-premises, private cloud, public cloud and SaaS is important to 86% of CIOs and ITDMs.

That last statistic is worth noting because it supports the thesis that cloud isn’t a location but an operating model. Although most people would equate cloud to public cloud, private and hybrid models are in demand, particularly with large organizations.

This is why every major cloud provider offers an on-premises stack to enable hybrid cloud. This enables that consistent operating model but only on a per-cloud basis, meaning Amazon Web Services tools only work with AWS, Microsoft Azure only with Azure and so on. Cisco has rolled out a suite of products that spans all the major cloud providers, and other traditional tech providers are pushing multicloud as well.

IT leaders believe the latest communications technologies, specifically 5G and WiFi 6, will dramatically improve performance of their networks by providing low latency and higher speeds. According to 72% of the respondents, these next-gen networks will play a key role in speeding up cloud adoption.

One of the questions I get from network professionals is whether their next-gen wireless should be 5G or WiFi 6, and the answer is both. WiFi has the benefit of being low cost and near ubiquitous, but the downside is that it runs on shared spectrum, making it subject to interference. 5G is dedicated spectrum, but devices can be more expensive and are not nearly as widely deployed as WiFi.  My recommendation is to use WiFi 6 for general-purpose use cases and then 5G for anything that is mission-critical. They will coexist for the foreseeable future.

Third on the list of priorities is delivering a better application experience, which, according to 89% of CIOs and ITDMs, requires consistent performance across both apps and infrastructure. The large majority (8%) of the survey respondents believe it’s important to create optimized app experiences that deploy faster, decrease network costs and latency, and simplify management.

Analytics, insights and automation are needed to build resilient and adaptive IT. For this reason, 76% of IT leaders want to be able to utilize business insights better; 73% will use insights to drive automation to free up people for more complex tasks; and 74% believe insights will be necessary to deliver a seamless user experience.

The previous two sets of data points are tightly coupled together. Almost all modern apps are network-centric, and it’s important for companies to understand what network information means in terms of app performance. The coming together of app performance and network automation will be an interesting industry trend to watch over the next several years.

Securing the enterprise continues to be a top priority for organizations, as remote workers connect to corporate networks from unsecured devices and home networks. Organizations want to provide their employees with highly secure access to apps and data whether they’re at home or in the office. That’s why 89% of the survey respondents feel it’s important to maintain security, control, and governance across user devices, networks, clouds and apps.

Organizations are increasingly turning to new networking and security solutions that are delivered from the cloud and support secure access. Secure access service edge or SASE is one such technology, which converges the wide-area network or WAN edge and network security into a cloud-based, as-a-service delivery model. SASE adoption is expected to take off over the next five years, addressing today’s complex security and scalability demands.

Cisco observed a similar trend in its report, which shows 69% of CIOs and ITDMs have implemented SASE-based solutions. The respondents cite several benefits of adopting SASE, including simpler cloud integrations, improved app performance, access to resources from anywhere, and reduced cost and complexity.

The shift to a hybrid workforce will be the single biggest driver of change in IT in the past several decades. Traditional on-premises security must be complemented with cloud delivered security to scale effectively to a workforce that’s working remotely for at least part of the work week. SASE shouldn’t just be thought of as an add-on to software-defined WAN but the driver of SD-WAN.

With these technologies in place, organizations can empower their hybrid workforce. CIOs and ITDMs agree their teams need highly secure access and the best collaboration experiences to prepare for the future of work. While many are still trying to figure out what the future of work looks like for their organization, 73% are redefining what productivity looks like this year compared to how they defined it pre-pandemic.

Going forward, 86% of IT leaders want to equip their distributed workforce with seamless access to apps and high-quality collaborative experiences, while 88% believe it’s important to secure remote work tools and protect customer or employee data for distributed teams in the hybrid work environment.

I don’t think anyone would argue with the statement that technology helped businesses adapt as COVID took hold. It’s also true that digital technologies will lead us into the next phase of business where digital experiences, remote working and cloud-delivered services are now not just an option, but the norm.

I’ve heard some IT leaders talk about the change that’s coming, but the reality is that change is here. Are you ready?

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

Image: geralt/Pixabay

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