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09 September 2016
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A world without networks is a world without connectivity. No connectivity = No cloud.
The networks we use each day are the prerequisites to digital business and transformation. For most end users, connectivity and the networks which enable it are virtually invisible. Yet, they are of the utmost importance for business success.
Networks don’t just enable connectivity and the growing adoption of the cloud; which Robbert Vogel explained in a previous interview. Today’s network technologies also make networks better, faster and smarter. Evolving demands and realities regarding connectivity, performance, bandwidth and flexibility impact the technologies, strategies and intelligence of networks.
Tom de Wit, who leads BT’s product management team in the Benelux region, is responsible for BT’s connectivity solutions (BT Connect) and weighs in on key network evolutions.
Connectivity: at the centre of digital transformation to internet and the cloud
Tom, how does BT’s connectivity solutions enable organisations to realise their digital possible in the context of a Cloud of Clouds infrastructure strategey?
Tom de Wit: Connectivity is extremely important in our Cloud of Clouds strategy and it certainly is in the digital transformation plans of our customers. In the end, all data that is generated, whether it’s with the Internet of Things, traditional applications or cloud applications, must be transported one way or the other. It needs to go to other locations or branches of the customer, to a big data cluster or to a data centre where it needs to be processed and stored.
Connectivity and networks make all these activities possible and BT plays an important role for our customers by delivering a global Intelligent Hybrid Network.
Our strength traditionally lies in Virtual Private Networks, based on MPLS. However, lately we see a huge move in the direction of the internet which is used for connectivity more often and replace the MPLS connections. That makes the internet extremely important in our strategy and we have embraced the internet as an integral part of our connectivity offerings through a vast offering. These range from our own high availability and high SLA internet backbone services to quality standard internet connections that are in some cases sufficient for our customers – for example for smaller locations or locations with valid alternatives if the internet breaks.
This means that internet as a connectivity layer, often is the basis for a cloud or IT strategy and is part of the enterprise IT architecture for many CIOs. But the internet alone is often not sufficient for enterprises or not reliable enough. And in most cases a hybrid intelligent network is the foundation for the transformations in the IT architecture. These hybrid networks consists of traditional network technologies such as MPLS and ethernet, plus an internet component.
We see a huge move in the direction of the internet which is used for connectivity more often and replace the MPLS connections.
Intelligent hybrid networks: optimising with best of breed partners.
What does the intelligent part of a hybrid intelligent network stand for?
Tom de Wit: BT adds intelligence to hybrid networks as bandwidth alone does not improve the performance of end users or applications. We work with a range of partners such as Dynatrace, Cisco, Riverbed and InfoVista to add value as an integrated solution. Their respective solutions offer additional intelligent capabilities, which enable us to give our customers more control and insight in their application performance over the network, and this from within the network itself.
Our BT Connect Intelligence offers four flavours, each representing the core capabilities of these crucial partners, so we have BT Connect Intelligence IWAN, Connect Intelligence Riverbed, Connect Intelligence InfoVista and Connect Intelligence Dynatrace.
The intelligent services are used for very specific tasks and each partner has been selected based upon its technology, which is leading in the segment of the intelligent element we want to add to the network.
Intelligence to monitor, accelerate and optimise network performance
Can you give us some examples of how this is done?
Tom de Wit: As an example, we use Dynatrace for the network monitoring because they have a very strong capability to see what exactly is happening right now on the network. It shows how many packets are on the network, where geographically they sit, how the applications perform and, if an application doesn’t perform, where the problem resides. With Dynatrace we can do deep packet inspection and find out, up until the transaction level in the application, where something has gone wrong. Is it, for instance, an application issue, a performance problem in the data centre, the wide area network or maybe the local network that causes problems. This gives customers insights as a basis to optimise, locate the problem fast and send to the right operational team to resolve the issue.
Another partner, Riverbed, specialises in network monitoring and acceleration: the caching of traffic. Identical traffic that is sent back and forth is a waste of bandwidth so by caching, it gets stored locally and the data can be queried from a local device, therefore accelerating traffic. On top of that, we also use Riverbed for hybrid path selection. This is part of the intelligent networking strategy whereby a customer has multiple connections to their branches. Hybrid path selection defines, based on performance metrics from the network, what is the preferred route for a specific application or for a specific user. If the route over the internet is better, then it uses the internet. If the WAN route is better, then we use that one and so on. This way we do hybrid routing and load balancing with the available network capacity. We also use InfoVista and Cisco IWAN for hybrid routing, which is in the end a tool for optimal use of available network capacity.
Evolutions in network technologies: responding to what organisations want
Software-defined networking (SDN), IWAN, network function virtualisation (NFV), SD-WAN… Is software eating of the networks too?
Tom de Wit: NFV really means that the network functions, which sit in the network, such as routing, switching, firewalling and acceleration, don’t require a separate appliance or piece of hardware for each different function anymore. In the future these functions become software. With BT multiple network functions can be loaded onto one appliance, reducing the amount of hardware in the customer’s and BT’s network.
This reduces the risk of a single point of failure in the network on the customer’s location but also in the core network of BT as we can load software that perform these functions on various types of appliances in our network. This means that when a specific function doesn’t work anymore, it is easy to load that software on another device and get back up and running much faster. It also limits the logistics involved in waiting for a new appliance. With software, everything can be rolled out in a few minutes.
How do you see the strain on the network infrastructure evolving?
Tom de Wit: In general, we see demand for bandwidth growing exponentially. We are sending bigger files, using more video conferencing, and regularly using social media including video channels. Also the internet traffic keeps on the customer locations due to more private use of internet, YouTube, Facebook and Google. A customer which I have recently visited has an internet growth of 300% in the last 3 years, which is significant and requires a network evolution.
Our customers are seeing the same increase in bandwidth demands too. Customers want a network that can scale with changing demand in a flexible way and that routes the traffic as optimally as possible, using available network capacity to the max, whether it is internet or MPLS.
Flexibility also means that the customer can temporarily upscale. For instance if there is an important migration to the cloud taking place or important batch processing happening. When these migrations or processes are done, customers can then revert to a lower bandwidth or cheaper technology. Or they have grown in size, through investment or acquisition, and structurally have more people requiring more bandwidth. We found customers want an internet-centric network or even an “internet unless” strategy with cloud connections and the ability to activate network functions instantly from their portal or at least on-demand.
Intelligent hybrid networking with IWAN
Where does Cisco’s IWAN fit in the intelligent network picture?
Tom de Wit: Cisco IWAN is in fact Cisco’s variant of intelligent hybrid networking. As you can read in several press releases, we have made major investments in IWAN. Cisco IWAN is an important component for the intelligent networking piece, software defined wide area networking (SD-WAN) and network function virtualisation. Cisco IWAN is a sort of predecessor of SDN and SD WAN which is a key step for us.
What Cisco does with IWAN is the traditional router, which stands on the customer’s location, in fact changes into a probe where we can see how the applications on the network perform. Compared to the traditional routers where a more reactive and polling based form of monitoring takes place, it is new. The routers generate a flow of information which are read in a central reporting platform allowing us to optimise network performance and deliver a much more proactive service model. We can use the Akamai content network as part of Cisco IWAN to accelerate internet and intranet traffic of the customer.
Customers want an internet-centric network or even an “internet unless” strategy with cloud connections and the ability to activate network functions instantly from their portal or at least on-demand.
A strategic transformation approach: holistic network design considerations
It’s clear that customer expectations regarding network flexibility, intelligence, performance and technologies are evolving fast to enable the digital possible much better with everything you mentioned. How should organisations get started?
Tom de Wit: There are several aspects to consider. Today customers often start from a cloud strategy before diving into the topic of connectivity. They are in a transformation or enter a transformation because they increasingly have a cloud first and internet-centric or internet unless strategy. However, it’s extremely important that customers think about their IT enterprise architecture as a starting point, where their end-users are located, where the applications are running now and in the future in other words how they design their cloud strategy and which kind of network is at the basis of it. And eventually how they migrate from a more traditional environment to a new cloud-based environment. If you look at applications moving to the cloud, the security implications and then how to design the network so that the end user can access the data and applications in the best possible way.
Security needs to be embedded from the very start. It is not something to treat separately. This requires strategic considerations: what are the policies from the customer’s side, what intellectual property is owned and which compliancy and regulatory elements play a role, are typical questions to ask. The answers are a basis and driver for the network design because they need to be taken into account in order to shape the network design correctly.
It’s extremely important that customers think about their IT enterprise architecture as a starting point.
So, look at the network design in a holistic way, taking into account all aspects strategically?
Tom de Wit: Yes, a transformation or migration strategy is essential. You have a “current state” of all the elements in your IT enterprise architecture and a “future state”. This “future” state is composed of cloud, internet and a hybrid intelligent network. In the end they support the business strategy and ensure the application performance and the end user experience strongly improves
Thank you Tom, that is very clear: take everything into account with the business needs and optimal design to enable the digital possible in mind.
Join the discussion on Twitter #DigitalPossible.
This interview is conducted at the occasion of the BT Cloud Summit 2016 in The Netherlands on October 12, 2016. Impressions from the event here.
Interview by BT Let’s Talk guest blogger, J-P De Clerck. J-P is a digital marketing and business analyst. He’s active on the crossroads where marketing, business, customer experience, technologies, IT, media and digital transformation meet. You can connect with him on Twitter and in our Benelux LinkedIn Group.