Pay as you go for your networking infrastructure? That's a NaaS idea

Just being stable isn’t enough. Here’s how to be predictable and agile

Sponsored This last year the network became our lifeline to living, learning, working and playing.

Almost 18 months on from the first lockdowns, it’s just becoming clear how the people managing enterprise and public networks moved heaven and earth to ensure that the rest of us could spend our days on Zoom and our nights on Netflix.

This is gratifying, as network infrastructure has traditionally been built with stability, rather than agility and rapid scalability, in mind. Nevertheless, we’ve seen the fast forwarding of changes that were already in motion, such as the shift of corporate apps and data beyond the traditional perimeter and into the cloud, and what are likely to be permanent changes to how businesses organize themselves, such as remote working.

This will fuel further change in how networking and associated enterprise architecture is acquired, deployed and managed. It is certainly what CIOs expect, and are increasingly demanding.

Almost 90 percent of CIOs and IT decision makers want more predictability and flexibility when it comes to their IT spend, according to Cisco’s research. Likewise, IDC research shows that three quarters of enterprises recognise the benefits of “as-a-service” models while ESG research shows that half of organizations would “prefer to buy data center infrastructure via consumption-based models based on resource utilization.” (Data sources)

At the same time, organizations cannot continue to manage infrastructure at the speed – or lack of it – they’ve been used to. As Raakhee Mistry, Cisco’s Senior Director, Enterprise Networking and Cloud Marketing, explains, new ways of doing business typically mean exploiting a new digital capability which the network needs to be able to support. And, of course, they have to be better able to respond to disruptions. In short, she says, “Both the business and the network need to be more agile.”

However, current models pose “challenges in terms of the amount of effort and resources being put into just maintaining networks, as opposed to being able to actually support the business to be more innovative.” And that’s before they confront the challenges of increased complexity, and the need to scale and expand to resources outside the enterprise.

This is the landscape into which Cisco is launching Cisco Plus, which brings the as-a-service model of the cloud world to networking, storage and compute. The three “pillars” of Cisco Plus are that services should be simple, predictable, and intelligent, with customers able to “pay as they use, or to pay as they grow.”

And although the last year has highlighted the importance of agility and predictability when it comes to infrastructure, it’s important to note that Cisco Plus has been in development for over two years. “This is something the board has been very engaged in for some time,” explains Cisco’s marketing lead for as-a-service, Ken Spear.

Your flexible friend

Hybrid Cloud is the first offering under the Cisco Plus banner, spanning networking, compute and storage in a variety of flavours such as VDI, bare metal and data center networking. Further down the line will be network-as-a-service (NaaS), which will combine “networking, security and observability capabilities into single unified subscription services”. This Secure Access Service Edge (SASE) architecture will allow users located anywhere to securely access applications anywhere and will be available under Cisco Plus later this year.

Cisco has pivoted its development efforts to deliver infrastructure as a service, according to Spear, including “the need to create an extensible service-rich cloud platform that allows us to monitor and manage things more centrally, and provide full lifecycle management.” But the effort also extends to Cisco’s own back-end systems so that products can be ordered, and upgrades and support managed as efficiently as possible.

Traditionally, many of these burdens, particularly ongoing management, were borne by customers and their partners. With the advent of Cisco Plus the company has built in flexibility so that customers could outsource many more elements to partners or Cisco, though Spear adds, “If they want to do that and continue to roll their own and continue to do business traditionally, that's fine.”

This is not an all or nothing change, adds Spear. Rather, companies need to make a careful assessment of what functions they could move to, for example, network as a service. “They may say ‘we want to maintain control over network capabilities like policy, that are critical to our business, but we're willing to outsource aspects, like hardware maintenance, that offer minimal value.’ They'll use different criteria based on security governance, as well as what SLAs have to be maintained?”

Choose your partner carefully

With hybrid cloud, for example, data regulations may make it problematic to run an application entirely in the cloud. Or customers could have installations where stringent latency requirements mean that some compute and storage have to be maintained on-premises.

By way of illustration, Spear references a manufacturing customer that deploys compute and storage on site to maintain latency within desired limits. The company also uses network-as-a-service for a daily batch run that pulls together information from its manufacturing facilities worldwide. “On a minute-to-minute basis, we don't necessarily need to use the network as a wide-area network because that's only a daily report. And the customer only wants to pay for that when they need to do that batch update.”

More immediately, he suggests, organizations may soon have large numbers of staff returning to offices or factories and might want to scale up their infrastructure. “So they're going to upgrade the compute instances that are sitting on the floor and the wireless in the campus and they’re going to add new applications. And, suddenly, that's a whole new way of using network-as-a-service and tying it in with what they already purchased.”

While X-as-a-service is typically seen as a direct vendor to customer model, partners will be essential to rolling out Cisco Plus, Spear says. These can range from VARS to cloud service providers to telcos that work with multiple vendors: “So they customize and add to the xaaS service in a way that best fits that particular customer. Someone in financial services has completely different requirements than someone in manufacturing, or retail, or a hospital.”

Mistry adds that organizations need to look beyond their initial requirements and consider the increasing number of strategic infrastructure functions that could be delivered as a service. “Basically, look at a partner that can bring it all together, so that they have access to a single dashboard, and a consistent way of consuming and maintaining services across all network domains.”

Intelligence to deliver a smarter as-a-service with AI and analytics

Cisco Plus will utilize AI technology, which is central to delivering the promised observability, ongoing management and increased automation. “It's not just enough to monitor, you have to have insights,” Spear says. “And so AI can provide you with those insights, which then creates actionable intelligence, and therefore you can initiate automation, automated responses.”

He cites the example of AI picking up on a service deterioration pattern on a given network configuration. “So we can go ahead and say, you know, we fixed that, but now we're seeing similar symptoms in a similarly configured network that is in Barcelona. So we can alert the customer and say, ‘We're seeing these failure trends. The service has not deteriorated yet, but there's a high probability it will. Would you like to schedule the configuration update?”

Mistry said the offerings mirror what should be happening in organizations, with network teams working more closely with security and cloud teams: “They can’t work in silos and pull this off.”

At the same time, as automation reduces the amount of manual work and eventually deals with remediation, companies are “freeing up your subject matter expertise, your engineers to take on higher level tasks and move over to those innovative business projects… that’s huge because over half their time today is spent on just managing operations on the network.”

Mistry says infrastructure is multi-dimensional, and the potential cost savings for customers from Cisco Plus will be too. Some will come from easier compliance, some from simply not over-provisioning or removing the need for expensive MPLS lines or from simple labor savings. “The cost to manage complexity is getting pretty expensive,” she says. “And there's the security story - what's the cost of a breach or the cost of downtime?”

According to Mistry, NaaS solutions can deliver significant savings by reducing the need for stand-alone security tools and streamlining security workflows. For example, Cisco Plus will include native integration of security capabilities into the network and hooks that SecOps teams can leverage.

Spear draws the comparison between the shift of infrastructure to a consumption basis to the shift of applications to SaaS, which resulted in “shadow IT” as line of business managers bypassed traditional IT.

“Here's something that is historically owned by IT,” he says. “They need to get ahead of this or those general managers who are responsible for those manufacturing floors are going to make the decision without IT.” And as the last year has shown, when a crisis hits, it’s really best to have the experts in charge.

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