The network of the future is all about context [EMEA Atmosphere]

Technology is changing everything. As a reader of this site, you know that all too well. But what you might not know is that some of the biggest changes are occurring thanks to changes in the networking space brought about by the consumerisation of enterprise tech.

While some of those changes have been scary for network administrators, the ones who’ve adapted have actually found that they suddenly have eyes on some incredible contextual data that is immensely useful to other aspects of the business.

That was the message from HPE Aruba CTO Partha Narasimhan during the day two keynote at the company’s EMEA Atmosphere conference, currently underway in Faro, Portugal.

The way things were…

“The data that is available in your network can give you useful insights,” said Narasiham, before reminding everyone that this wasn’t always the case.

In the early days of networking, things were fairly simple. Everyone was working on a desktop at a fixed location. That meant that if there was a problem, the network administrator could easily map out where it was coming from and shut it down. Heck, if you couldn’t solve the problem remotely, you could simply walk over to the person’s desk and do so because you knew exactly where it was.

It was also up to the network administrator to decide who had access to the network and how much access they had. “We used to manage changes with a human in the middle of the process,” said Narasiham, referring to the fact that it was down to the administrator to grow, shrink, or add new use applications to the network.

But that all changed with the introduction of WiFi into the workplace. Suddenly, employees on the network weren’t necessarily static, taking their laptops with them wherever they went.

That meant that if something went wrong with an employee’s machine, you couldn’t just get up and physically remove it from the network. It also meant that admins had to box a little smarter when it came to figuring out how to control who had access to the network.

WiFi authentication was an important tool on that front. It gave devices a user identity and allowed administrators to monitor who was on the network at various times.

And that was mostly fine for as long as it was only employees accessing the company WiFi network. But as laptop battery life increased, people from outside of the company started to bring them in for meetings.

It therefore became necessary to give guests user access to the network. It therefore became necessary to define roles, providing guests with internet connectivity without necessarily giving them the same amount of access as employees.

This, Narasimhan pointed out, was one of the earliest examples of context-dependent network access.

The moment things started to get really complex however was when Steve Jobs sat on a couch and whipped out Apple’s take on the tablet.

“The iPad was a game changer for many of us because it was the first device that came without networking ports,” says Narasimhan. Its massive popularity meant that network administrators had to find ways to keep things secure without compromising people’s experiences.

Suddenly, people had to start using different credentials based on different personas and potentially different use cases.

Under the old networking models, that wouldn’t have been able to happen. Guest users would originally have posed a major danger. Letting them involved punching holes into the firewall. But by using contextual information, you can see that a person using a specific device has permission to do so.

A new world of data insights

Perhaps the most valuable side-effect of all this change however didn’t come from evolutionary security leaps, but from the realisation that the IT department had a trove of data at its disposal, all of which could be used to improve the way people inside and outside the business engage with it.

An important leap on that front has been the recognition that virtual and physical worlds intersect. By looking at where people are when they access your network, and what they’re doing when they do so, you can get incredible insights into the way a company works.

And because we all almost always have WiFi-enabled devices on us, the amount of contextual data available is immense. And as Narasimhan notes, “context powers insights”.

It effectively works as a sample in time. Want to know where people go to collaborate? Take a look at the network data, and then try and figure out what makes those spaces good for collaboration. You can also see where people get most of their work done and what devices they’re doing it on.

Once a business understands those insights, it can start building the kind of flexible, digital workplace that attracts the best young talent out there.

But it’s easy to get wrong too and, as Narasimhan notes, if you don’t create the right use experience for a particular application, you don’t get the kind of digital workplace you want.

At this point it’s worth reiterating that this level of flexibility doesn’t have to mean lower levels of security. In fact, says Narasiham, you can leverage context to increase levels of security. Simply by knowing who’s connecting to your network, where they’re connecting from, and what device they’re using to connect, the network can automatically decide what level of access they need to have.

The IoT threat…and promise

Looking forward, the same opportunities exist as an increasing number of internet-enabled objects find their way into the workplace. Yes the Internet of Things does present major security concerns, but the opportunities simply can’t be ignored.

Imagine a future where an employee walks into a “quiet pod” looking to get some work done. Because they’ve got their smartphone on them, the network knows this and the lighting, temperature, and ambient noise in the pod immediately adjust to their preferred settings.

Thing is, that’s not the future. It’s possible now and businesses need to realise that. After all, we’re all individuals. Isn’t it time our workplaces started treating us as such?

Feature image: Asa Birenbaum via Twitter



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