Liquid Infrastructure – It’s Time to Change the Game

virtual-network-abstract

Editor Ian Hunter examines scenarios where customer defined networks could provide real flexibility and tries to unearth the potential benefits SDN based, portal/dashboard activated solutions could provide.

Today, the drivers for change within organisations are many and compelling. In order to retain customers and gain competitive advantage organisations must display the nimbleness and high degree of flexibility that demonstrates. It is this fleetness of foot that characterises a responsive company. And, they must be capable of demonstrating these characteristics in each and every territory in which they operate.

This flexibility has many aspects: For example, if you have a new team being set up in a remote location then they need support immediately. If you add 20 employees to an existing team then they need common business tools straight away and not in weeks. And if you need fewer team members on a project you must be able to reduce the number of tools you use without penalty. Only the cloud based deployment model can deliver that flexibility.

This article examines these and similar scenarios where customer defined networks could provide this flexibility and unearths the potential benefits SDN based, portal/dashboard activated solutions could provide.

But first a bit more background to why you might be thinking folk are trying to fix something that’s not broke.
Increased productivity, a reduction in costs and a more agile and flexible business make the case for Digital Transformation (DX) irresistible.

IDC say that globally, enterprise CEOs are moving DX to the centre of their strategy in order to achieve growth and that more than half of IT budgets will be consumed on DX by 2020. Indeed the analyst firm further predicts that by 2020 30% of the top firms in every business sector will not exist, as we know them today.

The key elements in a DX involve replacing legacy voice communications systems (PBX) and ISDN trunks with an all IP network over which cloud based applications are deployed – notably a Unified Communications as a Service (UCaaS) solution.Screen Shot 2017-01-23 at 16.19.45

This reduces the costs associated with running separate networks for voice and data, the cost of replacing an old PBX with a new but equally rigid and inflexible proprietary systems and the cost of maintaining a data network locked in to the era of client-server architecture.

Instead, a single network can globally run an integrated, cloud based UCaaS solution that encompasses all the applications – voice, messaging, conferencing and video, that are being used to increase the collaboration of ideas and skills necessary to get products to market faster.

Networks with software defined networking (SDN) and network function virtualisation (NFV) will enable organisations to swiftly and cost effectively deploy new services in the manner of switching on a light bulb.

The result of such a DX produces a company that is ideally positioned to compete, with a communications infrastructure capable of handling anything you throw at it in the future.

For many companies DX has been focussed externally. It’s been about opening new channels to engage stakeholders and customers. It’s been about setting up web sites, a mobile app, a Facebook page, a Twitter feed, and perhaps social media monitoring. Among B2C businesses there has also been a surge of development around e-commerce, finding new sources of revenue and growth.

These market-facing initiatives have often been successful. The likes of Tesco.com, Bank of America, Procter & Gamble, Next, Starbucks, Burberry, and many other consumer-facing businesses have adapted and responded to market pressures and competitive demands.

Customer-facing web sites and initiatives are all good; they can clearly make a significant impact. However, many feel that the real questions surrounding the digital opportunity are more fundamental; how the company is organised, the technologies it deploys, is it taking advantage of developments in the Cloud and Open Standards, how can it evolve to be more streamlined and cost-efficient, automate processes, move to self-serve, how can it take advantage of technology to find new ways of working that ultimately lead to more and longer term advantages in its markets.

Anyone for Inertia?

Today businesses may be moving forward and while growth may be slow, profits are holding up. In which case the inertia factor will kick in – why change when things are going OK?

Of course this Digital Transformation opportunity is not intended as any short-term fix or boost to this fiscal years’ numbers. It is much more about the long term, about being in a position to win in 3 or 5 years’ time, about working now to secure the long term survival and success of the company.

It’s this inertia factor that killed off companies such as Kodak and HMV. It’s not that these companies and others did not anticipate the upcoming digital challenges; it’s just that they kept plugging away with existing business and operating plans, assuming that the impact would be much later and they would have more time.

Liquid Infrastructure

To meet the challenges of the future there needs to be a change in approach. No longer can companies continue to run business processes based on and limited by their IT and network infrastructures. Instead they need infrastructures that are capable of evolving; that can support the needs of a company to grow and compete in a dynamic environment where the speed of introduction of new services and business processes is critical – most likely the difference between future success and failure.

There are many reasons why now is the time to plan and start along the path towards Digital Transformation not least of which is the planned cessation of ISDN services by national incumbent telcos across the globe and the availability of cloud based services such as UCaaS, SIP trunks and Software defined Networks (SDN).

First Steps

In a report published in November 2015, Forrester Research found that the previous five years have seen the start of ‘The Age of The Customer’, and that customer experience design should be at the heart of DX. In five years’ time we may consider companies without a digital strategy, or an integrated marketing strategy to be in a time warp.

Putting aside UCaaS as a likely integral element within a Digital Transformation, the other key component must be the infrastructure that UCaaS has to run on.

UCaaS is an enabler of collaboration across the wide area; it can be scaled to be deployed rapidly where it is needed within an organisation but only if the infrastructure can be put in place where the UCaaS is needed.

A new branch office does not need broadband to make UCaaS and access to all the applications, files and data a company uses. What it needs is a Gigabit connectivity – and fast – where fast means hours not six weeks plus.

To do that you need a network predicated on SDN and VFV and a portal from which to manage the changes to the enterprise network – both provision, bandwidth and SLA for starters.

Where’s the value in SDN?

Speaking to Franck Morales, VP of Marketing, Internet and Data, Networks, at Orange Business Services he made it clear that no IT manager likes losing control but it’s a common problem.

“Some see their budgets increasingly being spent by other departments, while others see the growing complexity of the IT estate making things more difficult to manage. Software-defined networking (SDN) is beginning to gain the attention of IT departments worldwide because of the many ways it can benefit companies and help regain some of the control and oversight of network activity.

SDN is a more open and programmable alternative to propriety hardware and is easier to centrally manage. And with NFV (Network Function Virtualisation) comes additional features such as firewall/proxy and acceleration that can be virtualised.”

Here are some of the benefits that Morales believes businesses should consider when looking at introducing SDN that show the value and help IT manager regain control.

Agility

Businesses often want to take the fast lane in rolling out new services but are held back by hardware complications and long lead times. New features such as real-time HD video conferencing and cloud applications may sound ideal initially, but when their rollout is hindered, it can be frustrating for all stakeholders. SDN makes it easier to implement new services while still delivering a consistently high quality end user experience.

Instead of taking a month to deliver fixed function equipment, it can now be done in a matter of minutes. It’s as straightforward as spinning up a new virtualised service on a network Point of Presence (PoP) or general purpose CPE. SDN can also speed up problem-solving and time spent by developers to run new application workloads without risk as virtual tenants in a live network. The upshot of all this is a much more agile business.

Performance

SDN brings with it a level of control and visibility that benefits businesses in a number of ways. And because everything can be monitored and managed through a single dashboard, all the network functionality can be tracked easily. For example, a centralised controller determines the best route for each application traffic flow. It does this by assessing real-time congestion levels, link health, priority of workload to the business, and the quality of service required.

All this increases redundancy and therefore helps businesses to avoid the high costs of IT downtime. And that cost can range up to $60 million a year for large enterprises so the incentive here is clear for companies looking to rein in unnecessary expenditure.

There’s another speed advantage to mention here, too. Adding intelligence to the network also makes it possible to speed up tasks such as traffic acceleration, which are usually prone to latency. Cloud apps are therefore responsive, easier to use, and deliver a more positive experience for employees and customers.

Security

The stakes are high as far as security is concerned because the consequences are great when measures don’t go far enough. Security is in fact one of the key reasons why people opt for SDN solutions. The centralised SDN controller in the core network has visibility over the end-to-end traffic flows and emerging threats. It can push out global security updates centrally to every site, while a virtual switch can filter packets at the network edge and redirect suspicious traffic to higher layer security controls.

The good news is that with an SDN controller in place, you can allow the right level of security for each user on the network. You can give role-based access to data and apps can operate over a diversity of transport links with varying levels of security – all thanks to SDN controllers. It’s an approach that can’t be matched by fixed hard-wired networks with rigid security policies.

Multivendor benefits

Vendor lock-in usually means difficulty in securing competitive price points for IT services. SDN enables companies to shake up the procurement model they’re used to adhering to as it enables multivendor solutions, providing you’re on the right platform.

Currently, the OpenDaylight platform, which is leading the transformation to open SDN, accounts for the majority of the entire SDN market. But the market as a whole will grow as many more businesses see the benefits of eliminating vendor lock-in. One source, Transparency Market Research, predicts the SDN market is set to surge to US$3.52 billion by 2018. Open SDN platforms not only help businesses to use multiple vendors at a competitive price, it also means that innovation can take place much faster.

Cost

On the subject of cost, there’s also the advantage of SDN reducing capex spend. SDN pools multiple compute, storage and processing functions onto low cost commodity servers to reduce capital expenditure. Add to this the fact that SDN can also reduce operating costs by automating the network configuration and management tasks that are usually done manually. This eliminates the need to physically visit switches and branch office sites. In fact, Gartner says that enterprises can see a 90 percent reduction in time for provisioning network services with SDN.

There’s a current move taking place to standardise SDN and it’s coming at the right time. SDN is increasing in popularity and with vendors working to create an API that will unify SDN services, it will further drive adoption. There are a range of advantages to rolling out these types of solutions in an enterprise IT setting and may cause some to rethink the way they manage their estates in the future.

Ed says Today’s business environment is characterised by globally distributed pools of information and workers as well as the need for real-time responsiveness. Network managers face new security threats and increasingly demanding traffic requirements that traditional architectures struggle to address. It is no wonder therefore that analyst firm Technology Business Research says SDN is approaching adoption by an early majority of enterprises and will compose nearly 40 percent of global enterprise network infrastructure revenue – that’s about $12.7 billion by 2020.