Digital Transformation: The Networking Challenge of Our Time

Andrew Dugan, CTO, Level 3 Communications
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Andrew Dugan, CTO, Level 3 Communications

Anywhere we look today, across nearly every industry and continent, we see evidence of a world in the midst of a digital transformation. Regardless of their traditional markets and models, businesses ranging from local coffee shops to multinational manufacturers are becoming–or have already become–digital enterprises, ones that leverage technology to streamline operations, provide a differentiated customer experience, and connect customers with products and services to stay competitive.

In fact, according to IDC, by the end of this year, two-thirds of the world’s largest companies–across verticals and disciplines–will be focusing their corporate strategy on digital transformation. As those evolutions continue to grow in number and scale, they are pumping a steady influx of fuel into a perpetual digital explosion, driving the need for ever-faster and ever more agile infrastructure, putting pressure on IT resources and continually transforming the way businesses build and interact with their networks.

Making Sense Out of Complexity

Take the example of a modern day coffee shop for instance, vastly different from just a few years ago, with its need for network and IT infrastructure to support everything from the point-of-sale system to WiFi to online ordering. Suddenly, the coffee shop is an IT company, forced to design, manage and secure a network to stay competitive. At stake is more than lukewarm latte.

  ​In the future, we will see security become a seamless layer in an SDN/NFV-enabled gateway   

Given this, it’s not surprising to learn that businesses need to get a handle on network cost management and optimization. Yet, businesses, large and small, are finding this difficult. While the digital evolution has certainly benefited the modern enterprise, it also has served as a significant challenge, leading to haphazard infrastructure growth and needless complexity.

Early on in its adoption, SDN offered a few important features to help with this complexity. Yet, they could only be accessed through a handful of select service offerings, like Ethernet. Some of the features offered by SDN included dynamic scaling of bandwidth on a scheduled, automated or ad hoc basis; additional control through portal or mobile interfaces; and on-demand usage and performance metrics at a new level of granularity (jitter, packet loss and more).

In short, SDN enabled businesses, small and large, from the regional insurance carrier to the global electronics manufacturer, to make some changes easily and to take hands out of the network through automation of OSS/ BSS systems platforms––to increase reliability, efficiency and reduce delivery intervals. Moreover, in doing so, it gave them greater visibility and control over usage, costs and bandwidth scaling.

Meeting Today’s IT Challenges with SDN and SD-WAN

The newfound visibility and control presented by SDN quickly revealed a new set of challenges: how to leverage these new capabilities to be agile, efficient and stable at the same time. Enterprises today want and need to rethink their architectures, to assemble order from the digitization chaos by consolidating solutions into a more orderly universe of cohesive systems–SDN, hybrid WAN and security–working together in harmony.

In the near term, I see SDN evolving from distinct product sets to other areas of the business such as the security solution suite and the WAN; weaving seamlessly throughout the infrastructure to create cross-collaboration via service chaining. What we’ll have then is a true, pure-play network as a service (Naas) model, one that encompasses the journey from provisioning all the way through the lifecycle of the service. (Though some providers have released NaaS offerings, few have delivered a true end-to-end NaaS solution to date–at least, not the cloud-like NaaS experience enterprises need.)

Let’s take security, for example. There is some security protection already inherent in the separation of the control and forwarding planes afforded by SDN. Most SDN-enabled products allow uniform security controls of all SDN-enabled elements for consistent protection. But when we eventually bring that up to the network scale, SDN-enabled networks can support data sharing and collaboration across gateways, DDoS mitigation and threat intelligence via service chaining. In the future, we will see security become a seamless layer in an SDN/NFV-enabled gateway. SDN and BGP FlowSpec will amplify ingest capacity ten-fold by dynamically updating access control lists at the edge, automatically adjusting in real time to changing security threats.

Now let’s turn to SD-WAN. Our vision of a complete SD-WAN solution gives customers more control and a better end-to-end user experience through ease of ordering, provisioning and modification. Enterprises will have a single interface for their data products and add-ons, including voice and security. Through it, they will have the benefit of zero-touch, plug-and-play provisioning with automated provisioning controls available in the portal. Such an offering will simplify global logistics of CPE and streamline management of all WAN components, including broadband, for increased cost savings.

Bringing Together the Connected World

More data has been created in the past two years than in the entire previous history of the human race. The transformation of business models toward digital created an explosion of data–and there’s no end in the foreseeable future. Enterprises need more than just big, dumb pipes; they need solutions and consultation to solve for growing complexity of networking infrastructure. So how will all these pieces come together cohesively? And how can it be better controlled and secured?

Providers will need to continue to embrace SDN/NFV and SD-WAN as a vital part of helping to simplify enterprise networking. They’ll need to continue developing tools that reach across the network–from transport to security to connections–based on how customers want to interact with their services and providers. And because no one provider will achieve this alone– they’ll need to rely on partnership, collaboration and the work of industry standards organizations to eventually make the ecosystem seamless to the enterprise.

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