The last year has been a bit of a whirlwind, to say the least. COVID-19 and the various lockdown measures created new challenges and priorities for businesses and the people supporting their technology and infrastructure. Some of the technology conversations that were trending before the pandemic fell off a bit, while others picked up or changed.
As we all start to come up for air a bit, we wanted to highlight the top networking trends we see people talking about for 2021 — working from home, WiFi 6, 5G, and AI — and share our perspective on what’s more helpful or more hype for MSPs and the businesses they serve.
Working from home is here to stay
The number of people working from home has been increasing over the years, and COVID-19 sent those numbers through the roof. According to a Gartner survey on March 17, 2020, 88% of organizations had encouraged or required their employees to work from home.
While there is now conceivably an end in sight for both the pandemic and the need for people to work from home, it seems pretty unlikely that many organizations and employees will go back to doing things exactly the way they did before once it’s completely safe to.
For one, many companies are choosing to embrace work from home as a permanent option for many of their employees. Twitter is giving most of its employees the option to work from home indefinitely. Slack said it’s going to become a much more distributed company and most employees will have the option to work remotely on a permanent basis. Nationwide Insurance is shutting down at least five of its offices and shifting those employees to work from home permanently.
And while many companies won’t make these kinds of big shifts to remote work like these big name companies, we’ve been in discussions with companies of all sizes who will incorporate some level of work from home once this pandemic is over.
Most likely, we will see a lot of companies that used to have most of their employees in the office most of the time shift to being more of a mix of in-office and remote work than they were before. There will still be people going into the office, but it won’t look the same as it used to.
If you’re at an MSP, you’ve undoubtedly had to figure out what to do for your customers that don’t have many or any people in the office. When we’ve talked with our MSP partners about what they’ve been doing since the pandemic started, their responses have been mixed. Some are looking for ways to fully support all those people working from home, some are taking care of basic connectivity issues for their most important customers, and some are sticking to supporting their customers’ offices.
Changes like the pandemic and increase in people working from home present a bit of a double-edged sword. There are opportunities — like going above and beyond to serve your customers in a way that you hadn’t promised in your contract/agreement with them, or offering them additional paid services to help them. But there are certainly drawbacks. You could be at risk of losing clients who no longer have the same need for the services you provided for their office, or overextending yourself without having the right resources in place.
No matter what you’re doing now, the growth of remote work is a trend that could impact your business and be something that you’ll want to put some serious thought into. And if you’re not familiar, we do have a version of Bigleaf for home offices that gives remote workers reliable network performance and prioritizes business applications over other household traffic.
WiFi 6 and 5G are mostly hype, but helpful for some MSP customers
You’ve probably noticed there’s been a lot of talk about 5G and WiFi 6 over the last couple of years. I’ve seen so many headlines and mentions of them, but they’ve mostly just focused on how cool and new the technologies could be in a business setting — and speed.
As Joel Mulkey, CEO of Bigleaf Networks, pointed out in a recent webinar, with WiFi 6 you will get more speed when you’re 10 feet away from the access point, but what people really need more than speed is more robust connectivity at the edges of their service area. He put it this way: “The problem that users see, that we see, is not ‘Hey, can I move a file from my PC to my server at 2 gigabits a second?’ The problem is, ‘I’m on a Zoom call that needs 5 megabits a second of really clean connectivity, and I’m getting 3% packet loss to my WiFi’.”
WiFi 6 and 5G do offer some good advancements for dense urban areas and places like stadiums where there are a lot of people in a more confined space. If that’s where you or a decent number of your customers are, you have every reason to be excited about them as an MSP. If you’re working more with typical small businesses though that are more spread out, you’re unlikely to notice the difference — especially if your customers are dependent on cloud and SaaS applications, where your internet capacity is the bandwidth constraint, not your WiFi.
And while 5G can certainly be faster, the problem is that the people who really need 5G to be fast and reliable are the ones out in suburban or rural areas where you can’t get 100 megabits per second, gigabit fiber, or a really good coax — and out there, you won’t really notice a difference between 5G and 4G.
WiFi 6 and 5G will likely be what we all end up using down the road, but they aren’t particularly revolutionary or something that will make some sort of fundamental impact for most businesses when they make the change. They’re iterations and improvements on what came before them, not major technological advancements. When it’s time to replace or upgrade your routers, I’d certainly recommend getting WiFi 6-compatible ones, but I wouldn’t rush it or make it a top priority.
AI is becoming a possibility for more businesses
Big tech companies have been able to invest a lot in AI and machine learning, and have had teams of engineers working on it for years. There are things we all see (and hear) that they’ve created, such as the voice-activated helpers like the Amazon Echo and Google Assistant. But the more interesting thing you don’t see and may not know about, is how they’re using AI to manage how packets flow through connections to try to make sure their website — Amazon, Google, YouTube, etc. — show up as fast as possible because they know that means you will be more likely to spend money or end up clicking on an ad that makes them money. Most large enterprises have teams dedicated to deploying less obvious AI technology like that to further their business goals.
What about the rest of us who don’t have budgets or teams the size of Amazon’s or Google’s? How can MSPs and smaller, IT-lean companies leverage AI? You probably have some sort of security solution that has AI as a component of it, but it probably hasn’t changed your life very much.
Here at Bigleaf, we saw how much time people at MSPs and in IT departments spend configuring and managing their networks and customers’ networks, and we wanted to help. So we’ve been building AI and machine reasoning into our products to automate and take away a lot of that burdensome work like sorting through a CIS log every morning and manually managing load balancing when a user calls and complains. If you want to learn more about how our AI-powered software works, check out bigleaf.net.
AI is here to stay, and fortunately, finally becoming something that smaller businesses can start leveraging and benefitting from — either on their own, or better yet, through their trusted MSP. It will only become more helpful and accessible over time, so now is a great time to start looking into it if you haven’t already.
Thanks for reading
I hope this gave you something useful — whether that was an idea for helping your customers or growing your business, something you can cross off your list for now, or a moment of zen about the future.
If you want to hear more about these trends, check out the recording of our 2021 networking trends webinar for MSPs. In it, I talk with Joel Mulkey, Bigleaf’s CEO and a long-time networking expert, and Andrew Bagnato who runs our MSP Partner Program.