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Easing into Network Virtualization

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by Christopher Pflum
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In a hypercompetitive market, a corporation’s ability to respond to opportunities, market forces and maleficent security intrusions is the defining factor in its success. Winning IT organizations must deliver speed, scale and agility – which means enterprises must pay attention to development methods and organizational structures to help them match the accelerating pace of change. But, until recently, enabling technologies at the network layer have taken a back seat. The metaphor that compares the network to the plumbing in the house is long past its prime.

Definitions

SD-WAN: The WAN-specific use case for software-defined networking used to connect enterprise networks over large geographic distances; it is agnostic to WAN transport technologies.

Universal managed network device: Sometimes called “bare metal” or commercial off the shelf (COTS), these devices are generic server boxes that support a multitude of virtualized network functions based on the installed software package.

vCPE: A way to deliver network services such as routing, firewall, and VPN functions to remote locations through software that is configured and centrally managed; it replaces proprietary CPE with a virtualization platform running on a “bare metal” or COTS server.

Perhaps a more apt analogy for the next generation of networking technology is the integrated silicon circuit that allows routes to be opened, closed, adjusted and amplified centrally, intelligently and automatically. The notion that a network is a singular, purpose-built and static form of infrastructure no longer works. The next-generation network will be responsive, adaptive, highly scalable and rapidly deployable. Getting to this new functionality will be an evolution that starts with software-defined Wide Area Network (SD-WAN), universal managed network devices and virtualized Customer Premise Equipment (vCPE) technologies.

Traditionally, the ability of a network infrastructure to adjust to new requirements depended on the IT team’s capacity to log into individual edge hardware – switches, optimizers, routers and firewalls – and manipulate complex configurations. But as the pace of business accelerates, the IT team is less and less able to deliver these required infrastructure changes without additional resources.  

SD-WAN centralizes the operational control and configuration function, greatly reducing the time it takes to manage requirements and allows an enterprise to keep pace with the needs of the business. With SD-WAN and vCPE, an enterprise can deploy, monitor and change the network virtually, in the cloud in minutes or hours instead of physically in days or months. This is not only a major capital and operating cost savings, it also gives enterprises the ability to respond more quickly to internal and external customer demands.

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Think of it as a circulatory system that can pump information quickly from a central organ to nodes throughout the body. In the age of digitization, businesses must connect customers, employees, suppliers and partners. To do so, IT centers of excellence need to provide an agile, adaptable and digital circulatory system built on software-defined network components. Pulling network management back from the edge and into a virtualized, central management system will be an important shift in the way IT serves the business.

This shift will begin with SD-WAN. But it will be followed quickly by two developments: 1) network providers will expedite new network deployments through advanced LTE and 5G wireless WAN technologies, and 2) the number of network end points – due to the growth in the Internet of Things and mobile computing – will explode. As these happen, the definition of SD networking solutions and services will expand to include the LAN layer and mobile spheres.  

To capitalize on these advances in technology, an enterprise must be able to adapt and orchestrate in an increasingly complex network environment. SD-WAN, managed network devices and vCPE are simply the first step toward total network virtualization and networking as a service (NaaS). Already, we are seeing network providers bid services with roadmaps that all but require the eventual shift to network virtualization. Here are a few ways to ease into this transformation.

  • Use the current stage in the technology adoption cycle to your advantage. Over the last year or two, providers have been ramping up their efforts to get their latest SD-WAN technologies “into the wild,” and it’s beginning to show in sales discussions. Use this to your advantage by negotiating a no- or low-cost pilot program and experiment. Providers are looking for active partners to give feedback as these technologies mature.
  • Renegotiate rates. If you didn’t renegotiate your data transport rates after your last contract cycle, now is the time. Use your willingness to transform your environment as leverage to get better-than-average rates. The savings may justify the transformation or, at a minimum, afford a 5-10x bandwidth increase at no additional cost.
  • Parlay savings from pilot deployments into an expansion. One of the benefits of SD-WAN is reduced capital expenditure, especially in the case of a NaaS strategy that employs managed network devices. Use this one-time cash savings as well as reductions in the labor and management costs of fewer technician dispatches to pay for an expansion.
  • Take advantage of your equipment lifecycle to phase in SD-WAN. There’s little cause to rip and replace your entire WAN network just to upgrade to the latest technology. Be opportunistic in your approach by phasing in SD-WAN and vCPE as you decommission your existing technology solution. Invest and avoid upgrading simply to remain current.
  • Minimize provider dependence. Consider building your network architecture on widely available, vendor-agnostic universal CPE. This will limit your dependence on any one provider and minimize lock in and the cost of changing vendors.

Most businesses are underprepared to ride the tides of generational technology change. At ISG, we specialize in educating and preparing IT and business decision-makers to catch these trends and take advantage of the benefits of early adoption.

Is your business ready? Contact me to find out more.

About the author

Chris is an analytical technologist and corporate strategy professional with experience leading and managing fast-paced network operations teams. Chris brings five years of Internet of Things (IoT) experience in the clean technology sector and managerial expertise in networked services in a Network Operations Center. He has successfully supported both domestic and international clients with globally reaching operations. He works with state and local governments and companies in the manufacturing, commercial goods, consumer electronics, agriculture, utilities and food and beverage industries. 

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