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For companies with wide area networks (WANs), a reduced time to revenue is the biggest advantage that network agility can provide. This advantage takes different forms, depending on the enterprise. For a managed service provider (MSP), turning up a service quickly is critical to success. For a retail chain launching a new store, a shorter wait for reliable connectivity to key services is a major step towards sales velocity. For an enterprise opening a new development office, the faster IT can provide access to internal applications, the faster the office can develop revenue-generating products and services. In all these cases, network agility directly translates into financial benefit.
With increased competition, enterprises now require greater agility than ever before, and traditional approaches simply can’t provide the speed enterprises demand. For decades, companies have leveraged purpose-built hardware, which needs to be ordered, shipped, and installed at several locations to deliver services. More recently, large, web-service providers have demonstrated rapid scaling and creation of new services in the cloud using standardized hardware and considerable automation. To remain competitive with these new players, companies need to improve their operational agility both in the data center and the WAN.
In data center networking, vendors are offering tools to enterprises to speed service delivery by introducing white box switches, configuration management tools, and deployment applications. White box switches separate the underlying hardware from the networking software, which encourages standardization and lowers costs. Open source configuration automation tools have become the key method to delivering repeatable deployment at enormous scale. Numerous deployment applications are emerging, including open-source multi-vendor zero-touch provisioning servers, which focus on automating heterogeneous deployments – a challenging and potentially labor intensive task.
While these data center examples indicate a "roadmap to responsiveness," making the WAN equally agile introduces several additional complexities. For example, by the very definition of WAN, devices to be deployed are geographically dispersed. This adds operational and logistical complexity with devices at multiple locations (with middleboxes potentially in the path).
Further, connectivity requirements often vary by site, requiring a mix of Ethernet, WLAN, and LTE. In contrast to a data center with a highly-uniform cloud of servers with identical interfaces, the underlying hardware at the edge of a network may differ from site to site. Finally, today’s enterprise might include thousands of fixed sites, but in the future, mobile devices and the Internet of Things (IoT) could drive site numbers into the tens of thousands.
Companies need to embrace WAN agility by building upon data center networking approaches, leveraging agent-based automation tools and Network Function Virtualization (NFV). For WAN applications, agent-based tools are now available, which have the distinct advantage of pushing from the branch, through middleboxes, to the centralized automation point. This ensures remote sites are reachable. NFV is networking implemented in software. With this abstraction, the same networking functionality can be achieved and managed across mixed hardware at diverse sites.
While agility in all operations is desirable for companies, speed in the initial deployment phase is the most valuable. Zero-touch deployment describes the highly-automated sequence of operations from generic physical or virtual platforms to geographically dispersed operating routers. To enable zero-touch deployment, companies need to leverage NFV and a DevOps approach. Deployment accelerates when vendors design networking functions to be entirely virtualized, run on the Linux operating system, and abstract underlying HW. By creating standards-based APIs, like REST, and leveraging open-source configuration management tools, companies could automate the entire installation and provisioning sequence from a staging location to any number of remotely deployed networking devices. With this approach, true WAN agility is possible.
Erik Thoen is Director, Product Management, at 128 Technology.