IT managers are replacing MPLS and other expensive private WAN links with broadband Internet connections as they look to trim budgets and optimize resources for the coming year. If they replace these private WAN connections with Internet links for WAN connectivity, network managers will have to learn to live with less visibility and control over their WAN.
Enterprises are targeting branch offices for Internet-based WAN connectivity, while regional and enterprise headquarters will continue relying on expensive T1s and MPLS circuits.
Network managers want the cheaper WAN connectivity, but they still want to be able to monitor their operations, control security and ensure good performance, according to Mike Cucchi, director of product marketing for Akamai.
Members of Akamai’s customer advisory board told Cucchi at the company’s annual customer conference in October that network managers are evaluating Internet-only WAN connectivity as a replacement for MPLS.
"We didn’t bring up the topic, they did. We were watching the trend, but didn’t expect to see it for five to six years out," Cucchi said.
Enterprises have relied on private WAN circuits for years because this technology has allowed them to control the link, Cucchi said. With that control, network managers can ensure network security, and monitor performance and availability.
"But with Internet-only connections, this all goes on inside the pipe, all these requirements. Losing the ability to do that is one of the stumbling blocks," Cucchi said.
Increased deployment of devices, controllers and software could make the Internet more managed. Call it WAN optimization or a RESTful Internet strategy, but in time, networking professionals will have to get used to a new way of thinking about and managing their networks, applications and connections, as their ability to monitor performance and traffic will be “taken over” by the network itself. It hasn’t happened yet, but it will become the norm rather than the exception, Cucchi said.
If this new model isn’t available right now, then why would enterprises be willing to use Internet connections in their WANs?
"It's cheaper. That's been the driver all along," said Tom Nolle, CEO and chief analyst of CIMI Corp.
That's the case for very small branch offices, in particular, Nolle said. However, you “really need to know the number of employees, labor/value ratio, and understand the cost-sensitive end of the branch."
For example, stockbrokers who are involved in latency-sensitive transactions would resist replacing an MPLS link with Internet, according to Nolle. By contrast, branches staffed by outside sales representatives will have more modest network requirements.
“As consumer broadband has gotten cheaper, there has been a transition away from provisioned services and into Internet VPNs, so yes, this is absolutely a trend driven by cost sensitivity," said Nolle.
"I would say that two out of every three small offices connect to their VPN through a software client,” Nolle said. “The advantage of using a computer software client is that the software client can be used anywhere that there’s Internet access."
Generally, according to Nolle, that's the case if there are five or fewer employees in an office connecting to a WAN. "Regional offices," he said, use WAN connectivity “explicitly purchased from a carrier.”
"Small branches can ... get connectivity pretty cheaply, and where they’re not using it as a primary connection, they’re using it as a secondary connection, either as overflow or backup, in case the primary fails,” said John Burke, principal research analyst at Nemertes Research.
"The router, for example, will be set up to reroute traffic automatically in the case of the primary connection going down," Burke said. It isn't "as slick" as what Talari and other Internet appliance makers can do for failover, but you can do it, he added.
Larger branches, where more than five to 10 users need WAN connectivity, will use appliances like Talari Networks’ Adaptive Private Networking (APN) appliances and Ipanema’s network controllers to get more performance and manageability out of Internet connections. Branches smaller than that really don’t need them, according to Nolle.
Maximizing broadband WAN connectivity with WAN optimization and other appliances
Talari APN appliances use a “WAN virtualization” technique that can combine multiple network connections -- both private WAN links and Internet links -- in a single, managed and load-balanced virtual network circuit, Burke said.
Other appliance makers, like Ipanema, have introduced low-cost WAN optimization controllers for smaller branches that are increasingly connecting through Internet connections. Ipanema recently introduced its Nano Engine, a line of sub-$1,000 WAN optimization controllers. When “performance seesaws” on an Internet connection, a dynamic self-healing controller like the Ipanema product might be useful, Burke said.
Internet-connected branches: Be wary of carrier edge oversubscription
Internet connections will become risky as carrier edge networks become oversubscribed, a problem that is already playing out in the mobile market.
“We still see an underinvestment in carriers beefing up the edges of their access networks,” Burke said. “At the edges, we’re starting to see demand ramp up to the point where it’s hurting performance and reliability on the edge.”
Today, oversubscription is most visible in the mobile space, where Sprint is the only carrier still offering an unlimited data plan, but Burke said this problem will extend to the rest of the broadband market.
“If you’re building connectivity in your business on commodity Internet access at the edge of the carrier network, you are setting yourself up to be hurt ... whenever and wherever things get oversubscribed and performance suffers,” Burke said.
“You may still get that 20 megabit connection cheap,” he added. But “it’s going to become less predictable and more frequent that you’ll experience interruption.”
Let us know what you think about the story; email: Lisa Sampson, Feature Writer
This was first published in January 2012