New technologies are set to fundamentally change the way networks are designed and used, and IT has to align more closely to business needs.

These are among the findings of a Cisco survey asking more than 2 000 IT leaders and network strategists how they plan to prioritise investment and the current state of their networks.

In today’s digital business environment, the network is vital, the survey finds. This digital era is currently driven by the exponential growth in technology performance, has become increasingly connected, digitised, distributed, and diverse. With every “thing” possessing the power to process data, compute models are poised to become dramatically more distributed and networked.

Whether maximising employee productivity, optimising customer experience or keeping data protected and secure, the network is foundational to business success. At the same time, the network is in the midst of one of its biggest evolutions since the introduction of the Internet, creating an opportunity for IT leaders and their teams to innovate.

“IT teams today are running complex mission critical networks that are increasingly capable of providing rich data,” comments Garsen Naidu, country manager of Cisco South Africa. “But using that data to improve the operations, security, or business impact of the network requires new tools.

“That’s why IT teams are embracing intent-based networking, AI and machine learning – because the business demands it,.

“AI will help IT break the cycle of maintaining the status quo,” Naidu adds. “Growth in spend on AI systems in the MEA region is expected to reach $374,2-million in 2020, up from $261,8-million in 2018 and an anticipated $310,3-million in 2019, according to the International Data Corporation (IDC).

“By embracing predictive analytics and AI-based operations, IT teams will pivot from being consumed with maintaining the status quo to becoming an enabler of new business innovation.”

Key findings from the Global Networking Trends Report and Survey demonstrate that IT leaders expect new wireless technologies, IoT and AI-enabled operations, threat detection and remediation to have the biggest impact on their network strategy and design over the next five years.

The top priority for global IT leaders and network strategists is to maximise the business value of IT and more closely align to business needs. Almost 40% of IT leaders named maximising IT’s business value as their number one priority, higher than simplifying operations, optimising employee productivity and minimising security events.

In order to achieve this, leaders and strategists believe investing in AI technologies is crucial. Almost 50% of network strategists believe increasing the use of analytics and AI will help enable the ideal network.

The study also found that intent-based networking is coming, allowing organisations to build on their software-defined networking foundations.

* 41% of those surveyed claim to have at least one instance of SDN in at least one of their network domains.

* Only 4% of respondents believe their networks have moved beyond software-defined and are intent-based today. However, 35% believe their networks will be fully intent-based in two years’ time.

* When asked to indicate where on Cisco’s Digital Network Readiness Model their networks currently operate, only 28% indicated they’ve reached a service-driven or intent-based network. However, when asked where their networks will be in two years, 78 respondents believed they would move beyond software-defined towards service-driven and intent-based networks.

IT leaders and strategists are ready to embrace AI and automation, the research found:

* Only 18% of IT leaders see lack of AI maturity as an obstacle to network modernisation, the lowest level of concern indicated in their responses.

* 72% of respondents plan to achieve AI-enabled predictive insights or prescriptive remediation within the next two years.

* 94% of respondents believe they will have a software-defined wide area network (SD-WAN) in two years. Further, 47% of SD-WAN owners plan to have an AI-optimised WAN in two years.

Meanwhile, IT operations are struggling to move from reactive to proactive, hindering their ability to become more aligned to their business:

* Over 75% of IT leaders and strategists believe their organisations are not predictive or business-optimised.

* One possible explanation as to why IT teams haven’t become more proactive is the amount of time spent on maintaining the status quo of the network. 73% of teams are spending more than half their time here.

* Another barrier to achieving more proactive and business-optimised operations is operational silos – 29% of organisations identified coordinating with other IT teams as its top time-consuming operational activity. An additional 27% identified that a siloed design and operational approach across separate network domains was holding them back from being able to modernise their networks.

IT leaders and strategists aren’t concerned about a skills gap, though:

* Leaders and strategists expressed confidence in their teams’ abilities to address future network challenges. A third of IT leaders believe their teams are extremely well prepared to meet all the needs of an advanced network, another 40% believe they are well prepared and only 7% believe they are not prepared at all.

* However, the skills gap remains a barrier for over a quarter of IT teams, with 27% of IT leaders identifying a lack of necessary skills as a main obstacle to transitioning to an advanced network.

* 22% of IT leaders identified reskilling and upskilling to address the skills gap as a top priority. South Africa’s Department of Home Affairs has published a critical skills list containing a catalogue of the country’s most needed competencies one of which is information communication and technology skills.