Amid all of the technological and architectural changes taking place in data infrastructure heading into 2019, the elephant in the room is the internet of things.

Even without the prospect of millions – no, billions – of connected devices feeding data back to processing centers, and vice versa, the world was on a trajectory of exponentially larger volumes every year. Now, that process has been kicked into even higher gear, and networks are on the front lines in the effort to keep it all on track.

Fortunately, there’s still time to put networks in order before the real data loads come crashing through – but not much. Enterprises and network providers need to take this challenge seriously by reorienting infrastructure quickly but in a manner that provides extensibility and flexibility over the long term. According to Zebra Technologies, the average enterprise currently spends $4.6 million on IoT-related projects, with network security and monitoring taking a big cut of the pie. Also high on the list is advanced analytics to help optimize the traffic flow to and from centralized resources and between emerging systems on the edge.

Two of the most valuable tools in the quest to make legacy networks IoT-ready are automation and virtualization, says Masergy’s Ray Watson. Success with the IoT requires real-time performance and flexibility. An essential component here is application-centric routing – the ability for apps themselves to chart their own network pathways rather than conform to a predefined construct. This is only possible in a software-defined environment in which networks are abstracted away from hardware. As well, virtual networking provides advantages in security and segmentation, visibility, monitoring and a host of other factors necessary for a fully functional IoT.

Still, it’s important to realize that networking the IoT is not just a scalability challenge, but a complexity challenge as well. As Zachary Crockett, CTO for IoT platform company Particle, noted to Cio.com recently, instead of one network connecting two endpoints, organizations will have to deal with thousands of endpoints utilizing thousands of network connections, both wired and wireless, each one supporting different sets of open and/or proprietary protocols. Without a carefully executed network conversion, expect to see numerous errors in IoT applications, some of which may look like coordinated cyberattacks.

Some might expect the emergence of 5G networks to alleviate these problems, but even this transition is not likely to be smooth sailing. Peter Van Den Houten, of IoT solutions provider Kore, points out that the phasing out of legacy 2G and 3G infrastructure is happening piecemeal around the globe, and their NB-IoT and LTE Cat M1 replacements are not yet comprehensive. For local services, this is not much of a problem, but anyone trying to roll out nationally or internationally will have to plan for mixed environments, perhaps for the next decade or more. Meanwhile, 5G provides a significant performance boost over 4G, but infrastructure upgrades will be lengthy and expensive due to the fact that its higher frequency results in limited propagation. 

All of this points up to the fact that the IoT is not just propelling a rapid network expansion, but a wholesale reimagining of how networks are designed and operated. Complex as they are, today’s networks are designed to move large amounts of data from place to place. In the future, networks will be tasked with moving large numbers of very small data packets to and from place to place.

We are truly on the cusp of a new era in networking, which means anyone who is not preparing for the transition now is not likely to see its conclusion.