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Increased cloud utilisation has changed the demand for network services radically. To meet these new business requirements in the market, Vodafone Group is deploying several flavours of software-defined networking; furthermore, the provider is opening its network with standard API’s to facilitate third parties in accelerating cloud innovation.

The decade plus dominance of the all-MPLS WAN is waning, and hybrid network solutions combining enterprise-grade connectivity with internet access and mobile connections are becoming the standard.

Hybrid solutions in enterprise computing

As corporate computing is shifting more and more to the cloud, executives sourcing connectivity are left with the task of making sure the corporate networks facilitate flexible access to cloud services and accommodate the resulting shifts in network traffic. Enterprise computing is becoming a hybrid world. The geography and technology of corporate networks is now intertwined with the location of corporate data centres, neutral colocation facilities, and cloud providers’ presence.

More and more enterprises are putting cloud computing at the top of their strategic agenda. ‘Cloud-based unified communications services can transform employee productivity, help teams collaborate remotely around the world, and cut operational costs’, states Mark Bennett, head of global fixed connectivity products at Vodafone Group. Bennett joined Vodafone in 2012, when the mobile provider acquired Cable & Wireless; following this acquisition, the provider heavily invested in an IP-based core network with coverage in over 182 countries, which enables enterprises to converge their WANs onto a single secure, resilient and future-proof solution.

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A solution to reduce the costs and complexity

Networks are undergoing a radical change, the biggest change probably for some time to come. In the last years Vodafone has significantly enhanced the capabilities of its networks by rolling out its Global IP-MPLS network to 73 countries, launching 100Gbps high speed, low latency Ethernet between 26 countries among other significant improvements.

But the biggest change is introducing a software layer in the network, which can be used to control the network through software and to configure and manage nodes and connections. Through its Project Ocean, the provider has defined an architecture that can reduce the costs and operational complexity.

Most enterprise customers can benefit from dynamic networking services. The new software layer enables customers to get access to cloud services more flexibly. ‘In the past, configuring a network usually involved manually updating routers in different locations and multiple site visits to provide additional functions and security services’, says Bennett. ‘When the network becomes more agile through the SD-WAN offering for instance we facilitate a consumption-based network through automation of the supply chain to a great extent.’

Supporting higher bandwidth demand

In the old connectivity paradigm, there was a big distinction between retail internet connections versus enterprise-grade Mpls. ‘Software-defined networking has turned this distinction into capabilities which are complementing each other instead of competing with each other,’ continues Bennett. Vodafone has initially deployed a SD-WAN offering in the market based on the Cisco Iwan-product. Customers can combine standard internet connections, LTE broadband alongside IP-VPN MPLS and steer traffic on the best path to facilitate a great application experience and adhere to compliance policies at the same time. This is efficiency of the WAN you need to support higher bandwidth demand with neutral impact on budgets.

SD-WAN is also bringing new capabilities. ‘We intend to be able to turn up sites in our markets in less than two days, maximising on our mobile networks scale. With software configuration of large networks can be done in days instead of weeks. And we can use LTE for more than backup alone. We can burst the right traffic to this connection when needed. Analytics is becoming very important to analyse bandwidth consumption and application performance, but it can increase security standards as well. We can detect anomalies in the network much easier and can offer added value by offering threat advisory’, says Bennett.

The greatest advantage is end-to-end networking: customers can embrace a guaranteed service quality and availability to all of their national and international locations. ‘Many SD WAN suppliers and other providers can’t offer end-to-end networking for customers on a large global scale because of the combination of fixed and mobile network presence and this dynamic software overlay. In many international connections, many handovers between carriers in the network are needed. If something goes wrong, it is hard to say where and how to resolve this incident and bring the service back up for the customer as soon as possible’, adds Bennett.

Freedom of choice

Vodafone is evolving its networks under the Ocean program and intends to introduce an enhanced ‘Ready Network’ product portfolio of Software Defined Network (SDN) and Network Functions Virtualisation (NFV) products. ‘This newly built platform is vendor-neutral and based on software-defined networking principles and network function virtualisation’, continues Bennett. ‘The most important driver for change is the possibility of choice we will give customers to buy software-based network and security services from a range of providers over the Ready Network.’

One of the first product capabilities to launch will be a next generation VPN Plus product, an SD-WAN with integrated multi-vendor virtual network functions, which will be introduced on a short notice, be based on this platform and have enhanced self-healing technologies. By defining key performance indicators for specific activities, certain events will trigger a process to change the capacity of network services. This makes it possible to spin up another firewall when a denial of service attack threatens to flood a system and to move the traffic and start analysing and cleaning it.

The platform is open for further functions to be added

The new platform gives other providers the possibility to offer additional services. The Fortinet secure gateway is an early example of such a cloud service. A range of suppliers will give enterprise customers access to a broad range of integrated network and security vendors. The platform is open for external developers to load it with other functions by coding solutions and connecting them to the platform with standard application programming interfaces (API).

Enterprises are accustomed to very long contract cycles in WAN services. The appetite for innovation is levelling up with the reluctance for risk in the connectivity market. Heavy adopters of cloud move on to next generation WAN services. Enterprises that are coming out of contract will also be open to this change, since ‘they are aiming to optimise costs, accelerate the consumption of cloud services and future proof the network supporting Enterprise digitisation’, says Bennett. ‘The technology of software-defined networking is maturing and fusing next-generation WAN services with a lot of innovation. It is time to unlock this new potential and start to enjoy the innovation of software based-networking services.’

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