A new decade is always an appropriate time to take a step back, examine market trends, and try to get a sense of where we're headed. It's no secret that the economy hasn't been kind to the tech sector—and that holds true for the networking segment. We're in an era of layoffs, outsourcing, limited resources, and squashed budgets. As a result, companies find themselves needing to do more with less. Gone are the days when IT guys would have the happy approval from upstairs to throw old stuff out and buy all-new technology. Today, companies need to optimize what they already have, or they need to find the cheapest solutions possible.

For these reasons, we're seeing a rather vivid evolution in the way both SMBs and enterprises are approaching their more basic networking goals. We're seeing a financially motivated return to basics, but at the same time we're seeing certain inevitable technological breakthroughs that, because of those financial restraints, are experiencing caution despite their supposed inevitability. What's on the networking horizon?

Doing More with Less
Recently, Gartner found that an increasing number of network managers are concerned with proactively preventing network performance problems. "The general consciousness," says Network Instruments' Michael Bower, "has gone back to the root level. Fewer people are simply replacing equipment that's not working. Now, they're making more of an effort to dive into their systems and actually see what's causing the problems."

But at a time when IT departments are shrinking, leaving companies with limited resources with which to tackle network-monitoring tasks, how are people keeping up with the challenges of their in-place technologies? SolarWinds' Sanjay Castellino says, "We’re seeing more of a move toward entry-level monitoring tools, away from complex monitoring. The actual monitoring folks today just want visibility into their network. They might not have the time or knowledge necessary to run an expensive, sophisticated tool, and they certainly no longer have a team of dedicated network engineers. They have 15 jobs to do every day, so they just want one simple tool that lets them get awareness into their environment."

Another technology that falls into this area is the WAN accelerator, which has seen remarkable growth over the past year. Bower says, "Imagine I have a water hose, and I turn it on and spray my car. I'm only getting so much PSI. But if I pump it into a pressure tank and crank up the PSI, I can get a lot more water through that same thickness of pipe." The same basic concept applies to WAN acceleration, which offers a big benefit to those trying to squeeze the most out of their existing network hardware. These devices offer an immediate return on investment (ROI) and are simple to implement. As more companies are consolidating servers and more users are working remotely, the need for WAN acceleration will increase.

Virtualization on the Rise
In a strained economy, the world of networking isn't seeing huge leaps forward, but it is seeing continued maturation of existing technologies, and once of those technologies is virtualization. Helping virtualization along, again, is the fact that networking teams are looking for ways to save time and money in their everyday processes.

The increased use of mobile devices for both business and personal use is also driving IT pros to consider virtual desktops as an easy way to secure and manage access to company data and applications. According to Bower, "Virtualization of the desktop is big. In a situation where you have a limited number of servers, but large numbers of laptops or notebooks, there's a definite cost benefit in letting a user bring his or her own computer to work rather than buying and maintaining a corporate asset. And if you're involved in a merger/acquisition—very common these days—desktop virtualization allows workforces to be more simply merged. One company's systems can be quickly integrated with the existing desktops of another company. Or, if your company is reducing size, you can restrict access to corporate assets with just a couple quick clicks."

Virtual Desktop Infrastructure (VDI) is a surging networking trend that requires significant network bandwidth. Preparing an infrastructure to handle that bandwidth is a consideration for organizations evaluating VDI, and it's one reason why we'll also see a rise in 10Gb Ethernet (10Gbe) adoption.

Many believe that 10GbE is the only way to get such jobs done, particularly as 10GbE technologies get faster and cheaper. In the virtualization era, in which servers deal with massive amounts of data behind the scenes, the sturdy backbone of 10GbE bandwidth will be essential.

Videoconferencing and UC
The difficult economy is a new driving force behind another networking trend: rethinking the way employees communicate and collaborate. More than ever, companies are seeing the need to adopt videoconferencing solutions on a large scale. Videoconferencing provides a nifty alternative to air travel—particularly now that increases in network-bandwidth capacity have made it a smoother, more viable communication method.

"Video is coming online," says Bower. "It's easier and easier to do with HD monitors, and a lot of good, lower-level solutions are available now, increasing adoption. We're seeing a lot of small office/home office (SOHO) implementations, using the technology for collocation and conferences." The question of latency and jitter remains in the equation, however. "Data is very forgiving, but voice and video are not!"

In general, communications technologies continue their gradual drift to the unified communications (UC) ideal. "Over the past few years," says Bower, "UC has evolved from a concept into a true communications-management platform." The time is upon us when we'll no longer have a disparate group of technologies such as VoIP, videoconferencing, instant messaging (IM), and email, but rather single UC platforms incorporating everything. Implementation of these platforms—from such companies as Cisco and Microsoft—will increase as businesses seek cost-effective forms of collaboration.

Is IPv6 Inevitable?
We're seeing articles in the media—yes, even in this magazine—about the inevitable rise of IPv6 in a networking environment that's seeing its current method of IP addressing (IPv4) surge toward depletion. And yet, although IPv6 is cropping up in some outlying experiments and in some products, it's just not surfacing in a meaningful way. Will this new decade see a true migration to the addressing scheme that many people today see no reason for and just don't want to mess with? In a word—yes.

According to Windows IT Pro contributing editor John Howie, "IPv6 is indeed inevitable. There are simply too many devices that want to communicate with each other for IPv4 to keep working. The explosion in mobile devices is certainly driving this. Currently, we use a number of technologies, such as NAT and Teredo, to make it all work in IPv4but we can't escape the fact that the pool of available IPv4 addresses is dwindling very fast. (We'll likely run out in two or three years.)

IPv6 offers many benefits beyond the capabilities of IPv4, such as faster processing of packets at the router and built-in security and extensibility. Very soon, we'll start seeing applications that demand IPv6. (Witness the new DirectAccess technology in Windows 7 and Windows Server 2008 R2.) Also, don't forget that the latest worldwide cable-modem standards support IPv6, and even if you have only IPv4 available from your ISP, you're probably using IPv6 encapsulated in IPv4, thanks to the 6to4 technology built in to Windows 7, Windows Server 2008, and Windows Vista. Heck, most modern Linux distributions enable 6to4 by default, and Apple is even in the IPv6, supporting it in its Macs. And governments around the world—including the US government and the European Union (EU)—have received mandates to migrate their systems to IPv6 and help spur global adoption.

Howie says, "Deploying a corporate IPv6 network alongside an IPv4 network is easy once your networking infrastructure supports it. Most Microsoft products support IPv6 natively, include Exchange Server, IIS, Internet Explorer (IE), and Office.

Mark Minasi, senior contributing editor for Windows IT Pro, cuts to the chase: "I find the whole IPv6 debate ridiculous, actually. It's simple, really: Some time in the next few years, we'll run out of IPv4 addresses. Period. There are only four billion IPv4 addresses on a planet with seven billion inhabitants, a billion organizations, and countless cell phones. Have you ever struggled with your ISP to get a couple of static IP addresses? In IPv6, you'll never, ever, ever run out of addresses. You'll never worry about subnetting again. You shake off some of the dust of 30 years of ancient Internet protocols built for a dial-up world. We love the phrase 'information superhighway,' but IPv4 is a dirt road. IPv6 adds the pavement.

Poised for Success
We’re at an economic low point, but the market’s current positioning—doing more with less, smartly considering new bedrock technologies—will only help us come out strong and efficient on the other side.