Networking is the plumbing of information technology. Like conventional plumbing, most people take it for granted until a pipe bursts or a faucet starts dripping. But unlike the pipes in houses and offices, networking technology is evolving at a frantic pace, even as IT investments have slowed to a trickle in the past few years.
Nonetheless, choosing the most important networking developments of the year 2003 wasn't at all difficult. The hard part, considering advances from core switches to the network edge and everywhere in between, was keeping the list down to a reasonable number.
For example, last year saw 10GbE switches mature to the point of becoming usable, and SSL-based VPNs moved from the realm of slideware into reality. In fact, SSL VPN appliances will be the must-have networking/security acquisitions for both customers and vendors for the next couple of years.
Endpoint copper GbE picked up steam in 2003, not just becoming affordable, but getting built into enough desktops and servers that you felt wasteful for not upgrading switches and cable plants to take advantage of it.
Storage switching became a hot-button issue, as IT departments struggled to cope with maintaining ever-increasing quantities of data. Not so hot -- but heating up -- voice-over-IP staked a claim in the consumer market; businesses, on the other hand, remained reluctant to abandon tried-and-true PBX installations.
Wireless LANs remained an alphabet soup of technologies. Consumers flocked to 802.11g hardware, businesses stuck with the 802.11b they just bought, and vendors added manageability features to improve corporate acceptance of WLAN technology.
But last year wasn't all sunshine and roses. There's still a lot of work to be done. First on the agenda should be fixing the Domain Name Service: It may not be the most important foundation technology of the Internet, but it's second only to TCP/IP, and has been shown time after time to be brittle and vulnerable to denial-of-service and spoofing attacks.
Also on the to-do list is improving the security of wireless networks, although this is as much about management as technology, given the amount of insecure-by-design equipment already deployed.
And we all need to get on the road to IPv6. Although some vendors are more ready for this than others, it seems to be a case of the reluctant dragging the unwilling.
In 2004, I will bank on seeing network equipment that allows easy connection of IPv6 networks, even if they have to be linked across conventional IPv4 networks. I also expect the arrival of 40GbE hardware; the need for that speed will become apparent as enterprises deploy desktop 10GbE connections. Because Cisco Systems Inc. and Foundry Networks Inc. are already delivering hardware that's capable of doing 40Gbps, it's a small step to actually slinging the bits in production environments.
Wireless LAN speeds will increase while the reach of wireless Ethernet continues to expand from the local to the metropolitan. The IEEE 802.11 Working Group is developing a 100Mbps standard, dubbed 802.11n, which boosts speed through improvements at the MAC layer. Whether or not this effort will bear fruit in 2004 is a matter for speculation -- but it's clear there's nowhere to go but up.