With responsibility for network and data centers, senior infrastructure executives have, to date, faced an unsolvable challenge of effectively and efficiently scaling wide area networks (WAN) in enterprise organizations with large numbers of geographically disperse locations.

Each of the two solutions that the industry is currently providing only solves different halves of the problem. And, if these solutions are jointly deployed, they essentially cancel out each other’s benefits.

In an enterprise world motivated by the need for global presence – with regional offices and storefronts around the world – the demand for WANs is continually increasing, along with the challenge of managing network costs, operational uptime, bandwidth, and service fulfillment speed. Clearly, it is time for some innovative thinking.

At NTT i3, I have been working on a new approach called CloudWAN. I believe that it solves this sticky problem.  Before I get into the details, let’s make sure we all have the same understanding of the current state of affairs in the industry.

Current Challenges for Managing WAN Links and Network Devices

The challenges for infrastructure executives and their teams fall into two areas:

Managing WAN links and Network Devices.

WAN links enable employees to remotely access a company’s IT and communication services.  As companies open new locations and branches, it is critically important that WAN links be deployed responsively, and their bandwidth scaled with a reasonable balance of quality and cost.  This is needed to support the use of cloud applications (such as Office 365) and collaboration tools (such as WebEx) that can quickly increase bandwidth consumption.

The current industry solution of choice focuses on utilizing expensive VPNs.  However, adding VPN bandwidth is expensive, line delivery is usually slow, and the quality-vs-cost curve is habitually inconsistent across regions and countries.  This makes scaling difficult.

With network devices, the challenge forms around maintaining a growing number of hardware devices in numerous locations from a variety of vendors. When device manufacturers release software updates, all devices must be updated in all locations.  This can take an inordinate amount of human resources and time, as well as requiring technical expertise across numerous different manufacturers’ devices.

Limitations and Incompatibilities of the Current Solutions

The two paths that are currently available are mere point solutions and actually work against each other. These are: (1) SD-WAN (software defined WAN) and (2) vCPE (virtual customer premises equipment.)

The first choice, SD-WAN, solves the problem of WAN links.  But it doesn’t provide a way to effectively manage the proliferation of network devices from multiple manufacturers and their need for frequent software updates.

The reverse is true for the vCPE path.  It is designed to solve the problem of managing network devices by replacing physical boxes with software-defined capabilities in local data centers.  This creates a ‘managed device’ scenario in which the enterprise is relieved from device management tasks such as software updates. However, it also adversely impacts the enterprise’s ability to manage WAN links responsively, creating an increased reliance on the Telco network.

Some might think that if you could combine these two approaches, the problems would be solved.  But, unfortunately, that’s not the case.  The benefits of SD-WAN come from carrier independence, by creating a virtual network over the carrier network. Yet if you add vCPE to the scenario, there is required increased dependence on the carrier network.

So each negates the benefit of the other. And we are back to square one.

NTT i3’s CloudWAN – Combining SD-WAN and ‘Smart’ CPE Solves the Incompatibility Issue

NTT i3 is proposing a new solution called CloudWAN which can simultaneously address both the conflicting needs of WAN links and network devices, and solve the conundrum facing infrastructure executives. The CloudWAN approach consists of the SD-WAN element that we have already reviewed, but now pairs it with ‘Smart’ CPE, as opposed to vCPE.

So if the difference is to be found in Smart CPE – what does that mean?

Smart CPE is a platform for network functions that can come from an unlimited number of vendors, providing improved usability with cloud-based management Important examples of this are application-aware network processing, including layer 7 monitoring/filtering and application optimization.

vCPE addresses the network device management challenge by moving intelligence from local hardware boxes to software-defined capabilities in the cloud. CloudWAN with Smart CPE takes a different approach to the location of software-defined network functions.  Rather than running those functions in the TelCo’s regional clouds, they typically are run on Smart CPEs on the customer premises. While CloudWAN users may choose to run some network functions in CloudWAN provider’s data centers, this is nothing more than an option.  With this approach, a number of previously unachievable benefits can be reaped.

  • Centralized management to multiple remote locations through a dashboard. All ‘network device’ functionality driven through software, with fewer hardware devices to manage and ‘zero touch’ device provisioning and onboarding.
  • Elimination of regional bandwidth inconsistencies with diminished reliance on Telco carrier networks, achieving overall network bandwidth efficiencies.

With this “SD-WAN plus Smart CPE” approach, we can solve the previously incompatible needs of WAN links and network device management in the globally disperse enterprise.

Where Does This Matter?

Going back to the problems that I stated upfront, in what kinds of business and scenarios will CloudWAN make a difference?

Think of industries such as retail and banking where multiple remote locations are the standard.  What if you could now add a new storefront or branch without deploying engineers into the field – that all that it took was a few commands from a centralized dashboard?

What about the growing world of the Internet of Things (IoT) – both in the home and in industry?

To date, enterprise infrastructure management has focused on the consolidation of IT assets into a limited number of data centers, thereby making remote ‘places’ as simple as possible. In the world of IoT, those remote and connected places (cars, factories, homes) need to be regarded as their own data centers with critical IT assets. Greater network functionality, such as intrusion detection system (IDS) for connected factories, will be added to effectively operate and manage these ’places.’

The question becomes: How can enterprises manage these new network functions in many distributed and remote places?  The answer will be found in CloudWAN with Smart CPEs.

This is an exciting time, where the previously unsolvable is going to open up a new world of opportunity for those tasked with effectively and efficiently scaling networks and the associated intelligence and devices.



Exciting News: NTT i³ at SXSW 2018

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