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Why you should consider networking as a service

Why you should consider networking as a service

by David Greer

Network as a service can afford companies greater flexibility and even performance gains in their network infrastructure. But planning and careful testing are essential.

As companies strive to run IT more efficiently, they are looking for ways to operate and manage their networks. New business models like network as a service promise that efficiency, through an on-demand provisioning model.

With on-demand purchasing, companies can be more cost-conscious and pay only for the networking services they need. network as a service (NaaS) can also help companies that want greater flexibility in provisioning without having to rearchitect networks or redo contracts from the ground up.

But companies need to be cautious about how they use NaaS. Outsourcing even some aspects of network infrastructure can mean less direct control over your network. But experts indicate that migrating networks can bring substantial benefits in ease of management, increased network availability and reliability.

"NaaS offers ROI [return on investment], enabling customers to trade Capex for Opex and refocus person hours on other priorities," said John Burke, research leader at Nemertes Research in Mokena, Ill.

The benefits are driving market expansion. In 2016, the NaaS market was valued at $1.85 billion, according to data from Stratistics MRC., a market research company The same data predicts the market will reach a $22.5 billion valuation by 2022 at a compound annual growth rate of 51.6% over the six-year period.

Still, NaaS has to make sense in the context of your company’s infrastructure. While some companies’ implementations have demonstrated advantages, others are waiting to see the pros emerge.  

Benefits of migrating networks to the cloud using NaaS

Network as a service enables companies to use their network with greater flexibility and dynamism, adjusting to application and service needs as they emerge. "NaaS gives the business the agility to quickly start a branch at location X, with the provider shipping a thin client so you can get on the WAN [wide area network] instantly, while experiencing fewer network outages over the life of the service," Burke said.

Customers should negotiate with their provider for network visibility to monitor performance and gauge the quality of service. Performance monitoring enables enterprises to model the performance of applications and the underlying infrastructure over time.

"The degree of visibility you can get should be one of your selection criteria for choosing a NaaS provider," Burke said. Negotiate auditor-level visibility to ensure auditors are satisfied that the vendor is securing the infrastructure appropriately, he added.

Challenges of migrating networks to the cloud

The challenges of migrating networks to the cloud include the tradeoffs associated with other kinds of outsourcing, such as ceding too much control of network assets. "You need to develop a relationship with the NaaS provider's technical support organization and optimize your interactions to get the service you want, despite having less control over how they deliver it," Burke said.

The migration process can also pose challenges. It’s difficult to run NaaS in parallel with existing networking for each site. "You need to set expectations for yourselves, your employees, and anyone using the network during the transition, as there can be hiccups in services for performance or availability," Burke said. "Those hiccups should be limited to the site you are migrating at the moment."

While NaaS has been touted as a cost saver, the reality is that there are few cost savings that come from migration. "In many cases, NaaS will have a higher cost than doing it yourself,” Burke said. “But when you factor in labor cost on the staff side, NaaS can be cost-neutral or provide some savings. Generally speaking, companies aren't looking for cost savings, but rather ample IT and business benefits.

How to migrate networks to the cloud using NaaS

"The NaaS migration process starts by doing test deployments in representative locations; then, you work out an excellent process for migration and use an extended pilot of that process to make sure you iron out all the wrinkles," Burke said.

Companies need to test NaaS infrastructure from the data center to the branches in parallel with their current networking infrastructure. By setting up tests carefully, the enterprise enables each network location and service to talk to the others during the transition.

"You can do this using your data center or a cloud gateway that your NaaS provider makes available as a service," Burke said. During trials, make sure the new solution is reliable before cutting over.

Thorough testing pays dividends. "Some companies that go with SD-WAN [software-defined wide area network] using NaaS report moving 10, 50 or 100 sites a night once they've got the process down," he said. "Speaking of SD-WAN, anyone moving to NaaS should be using SD-WAN to increase availability at every location through redundant connectivity."

"Enterprises should make sure to get the broadest degree of control over optimization and traffic prioritization policies that they can," Burke continued. Companies should manage as much of the infrastructure as they want directly through a portal.

Find a provider that offers APIs [application programming interfaces] to integrate the customer's ticketing system with theirs. "If the vendor throws up a ticket that they're going to be doing some maintenance, it will replicate down into the enterprise's system. If somebody in the company notices a problem and reports it to the help desk, throwing a ticket there should automatically throw something up for the provider on their ticketing system," Burke explained.

Prescient Solutions migrated many remote locations to NaaS

Jerry Irvine, a CIO at Prescient Solutions, an IT services company in Schaumburg, Ill., said, "NaaS enabled our remote consultants who work from multiple locations to share systems, infrastructure and data." Many of Prescient Solutions' systems and apps are in the cloud, as well as its networking. Prescient eventually felt comfortable using NaaS to connect it to even its proprietary applications, which the company moved to the cloud. 

Rather than using a more out-of-the-box NaaS vendor offering, Prescient Solutions opted for a complex, custom migration approach to address well-defined dependencies between its diverse applications and systems to meet client services requirements. "We started with a complete systems and application inventory, then defined an application flow map for all infrastructure, systems and data that our applications touch, traverse or utilize," Irvine said. This flowchart enabled Prescient to set priorities, address dependencies, and set and meet timeline requirements for the services it needed to migrate.

When testing network as a service using parallel processing where the NaaS and the existing networking run in tandem, the company has to consider legacy systems it will eliminate with the migration. You will replace some of these systems with new applications; others will go because they are not compatible with NaaS.

"The staff you include in the beta testing should be SMEs [subject-matter experts] in the systems you will move to NaaS and should have an interest in the movement to [ensure] that you overcome all the inherent migration challenges," Irvine said.

Staff without a vested interest-- including some whose systems the company will eliminate -- may not test systems rigorously, which could doom a NaaS implementation, he explained.

Networks with one foot in the cloud

PCM enlists telcos to provide WAN connectivity, some using software-defined networking. But the company has its own network operations center to support its business and that of its customers, and it uses IT service management for its processes. "We've developed these processes over a long time to support our infrastructure. That's a core part of our business, so it doesn't make sense for us to outsource that somewhere else," said Phil Mogavero, vice president of network solutions at PCM, based in El Segundo, Calif.

PCM is a public company with access to capital, often amortizing its hardware over more than three years. A NaaS company would look at the hardware and the migration cost, then amortize and depreciate it. "That's a more expensive option than purchasing the equipment ourselves," Mogavero said.

Making the move

Enterprises that can work out trade-offs in direct control of network infrastructure can buy into the agility, availability, and reliability that NaaS offers. Auditor-level visibility, a customer portal, ticket systems integrations, and open communications with technical support will offer enough control to satisfy many enterprises, given the NaaS benefits they'll gain.

The migration process is risky. Cutting over to NaaS without sufficient testing can leave sites with buggy networks. The enterprise must perform extended tests of NaaS in parallel with the existing network infrastructure for every site and migrate one site at a time.

By considering the costs, bargaining for everything you need for peace of mind, and planning ahead for a six-month trial with methodical testing and lots of hand holding from your new provider, you can make the move to NaaS without regrets.

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About the author

David Greer

David Geer writes about cybersecurity and technology for national and international publication. Geer’s work appears in various trade magazines from IDG in the U.S. and around the world in several languages. You can check out Geer’s LinkedIn profile as well as his Google Scholar page.