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Forward Networks 2021 Predictions: Remote Work, Digital Transformation, and AI Innovation in 2021

The COVID-19 pandemic was the most impactful event of 2020. It's been almost a year now since most Americans started quarantining and social distancing to stay safe during the pandemic. While we all hope to see an end to the pandemic in 2021, some of the changes induced by it are here to stay.


Distributed workforces driving digital transformation

Workforces that went completely distributed will likely stay that way, at least partially. This is being driven both by employee and business interests. Research last year found that 76% of workers want to continue working from home at least 2.5 days per week, on average. And tech leaders like Google, Microsoft, Uber, Airbnb and others have extended their remote work policies through late 2021 - or indefinitely.
With companies relying on and enforcing remote working policies during these months, employees have learned to become masters of the art of Zoom, embrace file sharing services, and spend much more time on conference calls. Naturally this has been a boom of digital services - and has fundamentally changed how we work and do business. Most companies have had to switch gears from considering digital transformation to aggressively adopting it. As new collaboration services were adopted to support employees now forced or encouraged to work remotely, many internal operations and processes had to similarly go digital. Dell's 2020 Index found that eight in 10 organizations have fast-tracked some digital transformation programs this year and 79 percent are re-inventing their business model.


The new approach to work will challenge infrastructure.

This fundamentally changes how online services and applications are delivered and consumed. To work effectively, users need to be able to consume a variety of services from anywhere, including their homes. This, in turn, increases the demand on the underlying network and security infrastructure. The network infrastructure needs to be able to support the growing demand, which will further accelerate the deployment of 5G. Complicating this even further is that enterprise networks are already labyrinthian and difficult to manage effectively.

Even before the pandemic, IT teams were struggling to keep up with such business demands in a way that didn't inhibit growth or increase risk. Gartner found that 80 percent of network outages are caused by people and process issues, with more than 50 percent of those outages caused by change configuration issues. With a fully distributed workforce, there's no well-defined security perimeter anymore. The approach to cybersecurity will have to continue to shift from traditional to one based on zero-trust.


Innovation initiatives will see renewed interest.

With an end to the pandemic somewhat in sight, many of the initiatives that had to be put on hold will see renewed interest in 2021. AI/ML techniques will be used in new ways and in new domains - including networking. One area of particular interest is how AI/ML techniques will be used to make the underlying infrastructure smarter and more robust to meet the increasing demands of business applications.

In fact, new intent-based systems are already appearing on the market to address many enterprise needs and pain points. These services are helping enterprises eliminate much of the manual configurations and inputs that IT teams normally need to go through, allowing businesses to free up more time and resources to spend on product development or service optimization. That is simply one example, but overall 2021 should be a year of tech growth and innovation - more so than ever before.


About the Author

Nikhil Handigol is co-founder of Forward Networks. He is also a Computer Science PhD from Stanford. As a member of the Stanford team that pioneered SDN/OpenFlow, his research focused on using SDN principles for systematic network troubleshooting (NetSight), flexible network emulation (Mininet), and smart load-balancing (Aster*x). Previously, he worked at SDN Academy, ON.Lab, and Cisco.

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