LAS VEGAS—I’m writing this at a table in the Media Room down the hall from the show floor of a rapidly diminishing Interop. Around me are marketing and public relations representatives discussing things like software-defined networks, virtualized network functions and virtualized servers.
If I walk out into the noisy, crowded trade show floor, I find myself among swag-toting visitors and hopeful booth attendants exhibiting what passes for networking products these days. Mostly gone are the switches, routers, firewalls and traffic load balancers that used to cover the floor of the Interop shows of yore. They have been replaced by network management packages, virtualized systems and provisioning software.
Meanwhile, across the table from me a PR representative pitches another reporter on an obscure product that might support project management software. The only reminder that a network exists in these parts is a clutter of Ethernet cables for those who still have the ability to access physical media. But elsewhere, the network has quietly melted into the background.
In his column, Eric Lundquist writes about the need to focus future networking conferences on retraining network management staff because of the massive changes coming to the technology. But the reality is that the reason such massive retraining is needed is because networking as it’s been known since the 1980s is disappearing.
Let’s use another disruptive technology as an analogy. Around 130 years ago, a technology called “electricity” burst on the scene, dramatically changing the way people live. It changed everything about how people worked and how businesses operated and practically everything about the industrialized world. At the time, there were magazines and books on electricity, there were conferences, there were hobbyists and there were even stores that specialized in electrical things.
Now, electricity has become one of the many background processes that we take for granted unless it’s taken away. By the end of the 1930s, most of those magazines and books about the technology of electricity were gone. The same thing is true of other disruptive technologies, including public water and telephone services. They have become essential public utilities that we expect to be available when we need them.
The network, looked at as a thing, is just about there. I’m at the biggest networking trade show in the U.S., but there’s hardly a mention of the network. A couple of vendors are still there showing networking gear, including Linksys, which is showing its new business-oriented networking products. But for the most part, the exhibits and conference programs are about the things that networking enables, not about networking.
At Interop You Could Watch the Network Disappear in Real Time
The disappearance of networking as a thing is almost complete. There are still a few magazines and some books about the technology itself, but vastly more about the things that networking enables, such as the cloud. Even now we mostly see networking talked about in terms of what it delivers, such as bandwidth and Internet access, or of a fiber that connects us to other parts of the world. But the network itself is mostly fading into the background.
Of course, the end of the network doesn’t mean that networking, per se, will end. The closets full of fiber optic cable and twisted pair copper and the machines that hum quietly in the background will remain and continue to improve. But those very improvements will serve to make the network fade even further into the background. Along with the virtualized systems and the cloud, the network will become more like a public utility every day.
So what does this mean for events such as Interop, not to mention the various books and magazines about networking? Chances are they’ll be around for a while, but they won’t be about networking much longer. Instead, we’ll see growing coverage of those virtualized systems and about the things that networking provides as an information utility. We’ll learn about what’s next in social networking, but not much about the latest in Ethernet or 10 Gig networking.
So yes, it’s safe to say that the end of the network as a separate entity, separate from IT or security, has come. Now it’s part of the overall communications environment that surrounds us and provides us with nearly unlimited access to information, with the world appearing with the touch of a finger. Many years ago, we heralded the “Year of the LAN” as the network, taken as a thing, arrived. Now, it has become so ubiquitous that it’s vanished before our eyes.
But lest you think I’m mourning the death of networking as a thing, I’m not. While much of my life has been spent with the details of cabling, coaxing network switches to work and configuring servers, today’s focus on network functionality is a new beginning for the people and institutions that once spent their time working on networking as a thing. It’s time to move to the next big thing, whatever we’re ultimately going to call it. But one thing is for sure, whatever that new term we use, it won’t be networking the way it was.