Cloud Networking: A Viable Solution for the Enterprise

By Rohit Mehra, Vice President, Network Infrastructure, IDC

Time and time again, we hear about the increasing prevalence of cloud technologies in enterprise IT, and the potential tools they can provide in the deployment and management of enterprise networks. As many in enterprise IT are aware, wireless networking has not been immune to this phenomenon. Recently, vendors have introduced technologies that allow networks to be hosted, controlled, and managed in the cloud. Having enjoyed impressive uptake, these technologies are riding a wave of momentum.

Among the most common reasons for deploying a cloud networking model are shifting expenditures from capex to opex, implementing a less physically-intensive infrastructure, having a lean IT staff, and centralizing network management. Cloud networking can be especially advantageous in what we call a "distributed enterprise" -- that is, an enterprise consisting of a centralized headquarters (usually where IT resides) and a number of "branches." Common examples include retail chains, school districts, and hospital systems.

Centralized Management & Lower Cost Model
And why does cloud networking have advantages for the distributed enterprise? One part of this is that the cloud centralizes infrastructure and management. Distributed enterprises often only have IT staff located at headquarters. If headquarters is located in Seattle, and a branch network in Miami needs network firmware upgrades, it is not realistic for a technician to travel all that way to make a minor system update. However, with cloud networking, centralized IT staff can push upgrades and changes through the management console that can lead to greater efficiencies.
Add to this the fact that branch office cloud networking hardware often can be shipped pre-configured, and is literally "plug and play." Staff members need no networking expertise to immediately connect their locations to the network. For a cloud-managed WLAN access point, just mount to the wall/ceiling, plug in, and you’re good to go. The device will get its configuration instantly from the cloud.  
Cloud technologies, which generally reduce the amount of hardware and energy usage required for an enterprise, have unsurprisingly grown in popularity after the financial crisis of 2008. Enterprises unable to get approval for large capital investments have sought to shift IT costs from capex to opex. Cloud networking achieves this, as there is a lower financial outlay for hardware. Instead, many of the costs of running the network are paid via yearly subscriptions.
The Leaner IT Era
Whether the result of budget cuts or a continuation of the status quo, many enterprises, particularly smaller and distributed enterprises, have very few employees dedicated to IT, much less networking. As mentioned, cloud networking helps small IT organizations manage their networks centrally and efficiently. With the heavy hardware concerns eliminated, on-site IT staff, at most, has to work with WLAN access points, routers, switches, and a Web-hosted management interface. Such management platforms have become intuitive enough that non-technical branch staff can perform basic management and maintenance, with subscription service plans providing support for troubleshooting and more complex maintenance. 
The Road Ahead
What is the future of cloud networking? While cloud networking certainly carries with it a number of tangible advantages for several types of enterprises, it will not completely displace incumbent networking architectures. That being said, cloud networking will continue to grow as more distributed enterprises look to deploy networking services across their entire business.  IDC believes that cloud networking solutions will continue to grow faster than the market at large for several years to come. In fact, a recent IDC survey of IT executives revealed that, on average, enterprises expect that in the next three years, almost half (45.5%) of their IT service delivery will be carried out via the cloud. A related cloud survey confirms the same, with the enterprise cloud systems management software market expected to grow at a 36.4% CAGR between 2011 and 2016 (see Figure 1). Clearly, there is an increasing affinity with IT for cloud services, and networking is certainly no exception.
Figure 1. Worldwide Enterprise Cloud Systems Management Software, 2011-2016

Source: IDC, 2013

Of course, there are skeptics of cloud networking, especially as it relates to security when working with a public cloud solution. Cloud networking datacenters are allaying security concerns by implementing the strictest standards with regard to encryption, firewalls, malware protection, and physical security, among other features. Frequent data backups and service level agreements that promises nearly 100% uptime are helping assuage fears about the cloud being a single point-of-failure. Moreover, the inherent scalability of cloud networking is making it more realistic for deployment in a wider range of enterprises. IDC believes that IT managers, especially those working for distributed enterprises seeking to implement a new WLAN or upgrade their existing branch (or remote office) network, should evaluate cloud networking solutions to determine which architecture best suits their unique application and connectivity needs. 


Rohit Mehra is Vice President of Network Infrastructure at IDC, covering Enterprise and Datacenter Networks. He provides expert insight and analysis into global industry and technology trends as they relate to enterprise networking and related areas of Ethernet and Layer 4-7 switching, routing, wireless and WAN Optimization. His breadth of coverage allows him to take a holistic view of network infrastructure- from enterprise mobility and BYOD, to cloud networking. In this capacity, he is responsible for market share and forecast reports as well as global go-to-market strategies. International Data Corporation (IDC) is the premier global provider of market intelligence, advisory services, and events for the information technology, telecommunications and consumer technology markets.

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