What is the LAN's future?

To support a cloud-centric future, new developments are looking to overcome the limitations of traditional wired local area networks (LANs). The rise of mobility and the growth in connected devices have made these LANs difficult to manage, scale and secure. How is the LAN adapting and evolving to keep pace with change?

LANs have been around in some shape or form since the start of the 1980s, but with an enormous increase in connected devices they are being forced to transform to keep up with the rapidly changing demands of a digital business world.

Users are increasingly using other connectivity channels, such as mobile networks. Companies will need to adapt and move to a hybrid model, which will use more than one type of connecting technology. In the next couple of years, we won’t see wired LANs on their own, but they won’t disappear altogether for the next five to ten years.

The evolution of technologies such as cloud, hybrid, Network-as-a-Service (NaaS) and wireless is putting connectivity into focus. Increasing demand for remote and collaborative working, analytics and data access have put existing LAN infrastructure under enormous strain. Dipping performance and availability are having a major impact on the user experience, operational efficiency and productivity.

Dawning of a new age

New user behaviors and the business needs of automation and industrialization are driving other technology standards inside the enterprise: Initially we are seeing wireless LAN (WLAN), fiber to the desk (FTTD), Li-Fi, and then 5G and beyond.

Flexibility and mobility are two of the key benefits of WLAN. Its high data transfer rate, ease of installation and low maintenance have all put the WLAN market on a strong growth path, increasing 8.4 percent over the year in the third quarter of 2016, according to analyst firm IDC. In fact, business-critical functions from all sectors are continuing to migrate to wireless networks.

FTTD is a very different beast. It is a high-bandwidth offering that basically expands the traditional fiber backbone system by running fiber directly to the desktop. Structurally opposed to WLAN described earlier, fiber optic cabling is proven, secure, reliable and expandable. It will connect machines and devices providing users with a better wireless connection experience.

In some industries, however, cabling and equipment cannot survive in harsh work environments. In these cases, where WLAN or FTTD are problematic Li-Fi will find a place. Based on optical wireless communications, Li-Fi is easy to secure in a limited perimeter.

Companies will choose new technologies as they push more traffic to the internet to reduce costs. Some will opt for hybrid – half WLAN, half LAN. A gradual transition is sensible, because many are not in a position to rip everything out and start again. New business start-ups are likely to go wireless straight away.

Security is an issue

One of the big challenges in modernizing LANs will be security. Some companies are putting themselves at risk, because they are transitioning too fast without developing a security strategy for moving from the wired LAN to wireless.

Cyber threats continue with increased complexity, maturity and frequency. The US Department of Homeland Security highlighted in a report that “cybersecurity continues to be an afterthought or significantly less than needed” in many industrial organizations.

New networking capabilities require a different way of thinking. More connection points in a modern network heightens risk. Companies need to look at implementing security around applications and data stores, for example, instead of the perimeter fence concept with the wired LAN. At the same time, they must ensure that their cybersecurity plan is robust enough to address the expanding network and understand threats that exist and may be imminent. This for example, may require monitoring the dark web for adverse activity.

Cost of modernization

The cost of modernizing the LAN adds another CAPEX model. It isn’t a network tweak, but a totally new design they will need to invest in. Modernizing the network, however, is essential if companies are to keep abreast of new technologies and retain their competitive edge.

The move demands changing equipment, authentication models and methods and putting in new architectures. One important component for setting up a WLAN, for example, is a radio plan to map out optimal locations for the access points.

Digital transformation at the core

LAN modernization is a key step to digital transformation (DX). It is what we at Orange call “digital enablement” and is a critical component of DX. Without this foundation a company can’t go digital inside and out.

For example, a company may want to install beacons as part of an Internet of Things (IoT) project, but without adapted technology (LoRa, WLAN, etc.) they will not work correctly.

Unified communications (UC), digital workspace applications such as Skype for Business collaboration tools and enterprise social networking are also opening up enterprise internet usage, putting enormous pressure on the LAN. Companies are finding that they can’t use part of these applications on their LANs or they are too slow, which is a barrier to business development.

If companies don’t evolve their network, their own employees will take it upon themselves to find faster, easier solutions. When wireless first arrived, for example, companies were much slower to embrace the technology than employees. This resulted in employees bringing in their own wireless access points and it wasn’t long before companies were dealing with unsecured, rogue Wi-Fi access points. Kaspersky Security Network estimated last year that 25 per cent of the world’s Wi-Fi networks have no encryption or network password.

Playing the waiting game

Just as with the adoption of cloud, many companies are preparing to update their wired LAN, but have yet to move forward - despite it being essential to future business. Instead they are choosing to take it a step at a time.

But it is user adoption of technology that ultimately pushes change. By 2020 Gartner predicts that more than 20 million IP-enabled devices will be connected to networks around the globe. Enterprise networks will have no choice but to transform and scale up meet this huge burst of demand by users.

The pace of digital change is accelerating. You need to be able to use data as a key corporate asset to power employees' real-time business workflows and customer interactions. Secure, high-speed connectivity is essential. Find out more here.

Bachar Abou Saleh

Bachar Abou Saleh is the Digital Enablement Manager at Orange Business International Consulting Practice, where he is responsible for developing global offers and supporting local teams. Prior to this position, Bachar worked at Orange Consulting for five years as an IT Consultant. Before Orange Bachar was managing XMMX Design, a startup offering websites development and webhosting solutions.