From edge cloud and 5G through to the arrival of connected robots – the network trends that will dominate 2021

04 February 2021

Jürgen Hatheier, Ciena EMEA CTO

Jürgen Hatheier, Ciena EMEA CTO

In 2020, network providers faced a new set of challenges with the changing dynamics of remote work, school, and the continued surge in demand for bandwidth-intensive applications like streaming video and cloud gaming.

Already this year, it’s clear that we won’t be returning to our old ways of working anytime soon. Our reliance on digital connectivity has grown and the past year has shown us just how critical the underlying communication network is to the way we work, live and play.

So, what does this mean for connectivity in 2021, how will the industry change and what are the trends we are likely to see?

The rise of edge cloud

There is no denying that over the past year we have experienced demand for connectivity like never before. This was driven by the unexpected need to support remote work, education, healthcare, streaming entertainment (and life in general) which put extra pressure on our networks. This ultimately gave rise to a different networking approach whereby the networks are engineered with edge computing to locate servers closer to the end-users. This approach includes both distributed and centralised data centres.

In 2021, it is already clear that there will be even greater focus on the edge cloud. Aside from growth through current use cases (like gaming), I expect the increase in home workers to have an impact on edge cloud strategies and investments. I also expect to see the rise of more business use cases, such as cashier-less retail and industrial IoT/ smart manufacturing, in the coming year.

Pushing the boundaries of connectivity with 800G

In 2020 we also saw the arrival of 800G technology marking a major milestone in the networking space. With programmable 800G pushing the boundaries of what the optical network can do from a capacity standpoint, 2021 is set to be another exciting year for volume 800G deployments. Also, coherent technology innovations are expected to continue in full force. We will see the first deployments of interoperable 400ZR pluggable in 2021, specifically for single-span DCI applications for certain Hyperscale providers, which will play a key role in supporting the continued growth of global cloud services.

With 800G unleashing the full potential of the optical network, this is also set to be a breakthrough year for software intelligence and automation. As we continue down the road of 5G, IoT and new cloud and gaming services, it is expected to see advanced software and analytics play a critical role in the underlying telecom network. For example, a game changer for providers will be their ability to use software to optimise traffic across their existing network infrastructure (on ALL network layers from optical to IP) to drive more efficient use. Additionally, we will see the use of new software applications that give greater visibility into the health of the network via real-time link performance metrics and increased, end-to-end photonic layer automation. In 2021, networks that can adapt, self-heal and predict changing user demands will be paramount.

IoT and robots

We are also likely to see more and more organisations employ connected robots to help improve business operations and drive efficiencies. Besides being the fantasy of any Doctor Who fan, dog-like robots already exist and have many practical uses. These machines can only work if certain minimum networking conditions are met, which 5G adoption will help facilitate. These types of robots can provide very important services to the healthcare, construction, and research industries. For instance, they can be used to disinfect rooms and remotely deliver food to those who are COVID-19 positive. Furthermore, they can perform inspections of hazardous areas, create digital twins and carry payloads. Another great example of connected machines is the use of UAV-based (unmanned aerial vehicle) delivery of goods. Although the majority of these machines are not necessarily powered by artificial intelligence (AI), as they still rely on humans to initiate and provide commands, they will need reliable connectivity to ensure a more efficient work environment across a range of activities.

Segment routing

All of this ultimately points to a clear demand for new technologies such as 5G, IoT, AR/VR/XR, cloud services, and cloud gaming and this demand will continue to grow unabated. To properly address these new and emerging market drivers, rigid legacy IP architectures will continue to evolve towards a more adaptive network providing increased IP capabilities closer to the edge. This requires a simpler, more cost-effective IP implementation that benefits from a strategic balance of both distributed node-based and centralised SDN-based intelligence that is the essence of Segment Routing. As such, we see network operators increasingly moving towards Segment Routing, from access to metro.

In 2020, the Covid-19 pandemic catalysed a shift toward remote work, school, healthcare and life in general. This year, we can expect continued progress in networking technologies that help keep us all connected and fuel our digital world. I for one, am excited to be in this space and look forward to what’s ahead.