Traditional service-level agreements (SLAs) that guarantee only fixed Layer 2- and Layer 3-based response times start to look lackluster when users demand uninterrupted high-definition video or cloud computing services. Uptime isn't enough anymore. Facing pressure to improve wide area network (WAN) application performance, carriers will soon provide network-embedded services, on-demand traffic shaping and application SLAs.
"[Wide area] network services have traditionally been very inflexible -- the enterprise signs a contract on a specific service, and there can be several days' or weeks' delay to obtain any reconfiguration, not to mention … associated monthly charges [to alter the contract]," said Bjarne Munch, principal analyst at Gartner Inc. "If the network could adapt when the need arises, enterprises can cost-optimize the network and potentially save a lot of money."
Service providers will introduce "embedded application awareness" to their networks by 2013, according to Munch, who recently authored the research note Application Networking Services Coming to a WAN Near You.
In addition to eliminating the need for WAN optimization controllers (WOCs) at some branch offices -- since devices will instead be placed at the edge of carrier networks -- these changes will enable carriers to deliver application SLAs for non-encrypted traffic, Munch said. Most SLAs today guarantee uptime, latency and packet loss between links.
When WAN optimization began to emerge in 2005, experts mistakenly believed that the enterprise market for these appliances would die off by 2010 as carrier-class boxes took their place, according to Mark Fabbi, a vice president at Gartner. Analysts didn't expect that SLAs in 2010 would just continue to guarantee the bare minimum -- packet loss, latency and uptime.
"We were wrong, and it's taking longer to evolve than we would've expected," said Fabbi, who addressed the topic at Improving Application Performance in a Distributed World, a session at Gartner's recent Wireless, Networking & Communications Summit in San Diego. "I finally realized what the hurdle is for the carriers. If you think of the carrier world, they give SLAs on things they can control, and they get really paranoid about the things that they can't."
Service provider networks will also be able to accommodate unscheduled traffic bursts, such as an impromptu video conference, and intelligently reconfigure bandwidth and quality of service (QoS) to optimize such real-time applications according to an enterprise's policies, Fabbi added.
"This is attractive because enterprises have significantly more applications in their network and because the bandwidth and QoS needs can fluctuate much more than they used to," Munch said. "One example would be the increasing use of video conferencing, which is bandwidth-demanding, QoS-demanding [and] expensive to [support] on a permanent basis -- especially if you only need it on an ad hoc basis."
Wesley Corie, a network administrator for Providence Engineering in Baton Rouge, La., sees little value in paying a premium for application SLAs since he has been able to ensure reliable WAN application performance at his two branch offices with redundant T1 connections coupled with a load balancing and failover appliance from Ecessa.
"Having one ISP go down for an extended period is a nuisance, not catastrophic," Corie said, "[so] I can't see how to justify the extra cost for SLAs on our ISP connections."
But the concept of application-aware service provider networks that could automate bandwidth and QoS shaping as needed holds appeal, he said.
"Bursting upstream bandwidth would be a welcome addition, since the download speed is already more than sufficient. Having QoS traffic shaping on the ISP side would be marvelous," Corie said. "The ability to drop Web and email traffic to the bottom of the pile and put VoIP [voice over IP] and VPN on the top -- that would be worthwhile."
'Carrier-friendly' WAN optimization enables application SLAs, app QoS over WANs
When providers integrate all their systems across customer care, billing, provisioning, etc., they can automate their processes and ... make the network 'reactive' to changing traffic [demands].
Bjarne Munch, Principal Analyst
Orange Business Services, part of the France Telecom group, began offering application SLAs and network-embedded QoS shaping for enterprise apps when it launched its "Network Boost" service in France in 2005, according to Jean Critcher, solution director of business acceleration consulting and solutions integration at Orange Business.
With up to six application SLAs available for each Network Boost customer, the carrier can guarantee throughput, latency and jitter levels for critical enterprise applications, she said. Network managers can also rank and prioritize 30 enterprise or cloud-based applications against one another. The service, launched internationally in 2008, is used today by about 50 global enterprises.
The development of a "carrier-friendly," easily scalable WAN optimization product from French vendor Ipanema Technologies has enabled Orange Business to tightly couple application metrics on its customers' virtual private networks (VPNs) with the carrier's operations support systems (OSS) and billing support systems (BSS) architecture, Critcher said.
Although enterprise data centers still require a dedicated appliance for application monitoring, a branch office can often have a "virtual probe" installed in its VPN appliance and track application SLAs from a central server in Orange's network, she said.
"It's architecture- and management-embedded," Critcher said. "There doesn't have to be a physical appliance everywhere to give a customer an application service-level agreement."
Orange Business will use these new capabilities to enable two cloud-focused initiatives -- VPN Gallery and Cloud Ports -- later this year. Orange will partner with popular cloud providers for its VPN Gallery service to give enterprise customers a dedicated virtual LAN (VLAN) inside those providers' data centers, which will enable Orange to guarantee performance metrics, Critcher said. Cloud Ports will focus on optimizing hybrid cloud environments.
Just as OSS/BSS architecture ensures that cell phone users don't need to schedule text messages before sending them, Munch said newer WAN optimization technologies offer enterprises a similar level of flexibility with their Multiprotocol Label Switching (MPLS) services by integrating with carriers' operations and billing systems.
"When [service] providers integrate all their systems across customer care, billing, provisioning, etc., they can automate their processes and not only introduce self-service to the customer but even make the network 'reactive' to changing traffic [demands]," Munch said. "The network can automatically respond to any needs for 'reconfiguration' and feed this back to the billing and customer care systems."
Application SLAs: Not mainstream yet
Service providers have long shied away from offering application SLAs because their network infrastructure specialized in simply pushing packets and couldn't support "application fluency," he said.
This lack of application fluency has forced enterprises to equip every site with on-premise WAN optimization and application performance management equipment, increasing operational costs.
On-demand bandwidth and QoS shaping is available from some global providers, but those services must be manually activated via a change request that needs to be submitted at least an hour in advance, Munch said. That can be useful for nightly data backups but not for unpredictable SaaS or video traffic, he added.
"This [barrier] is partly caused by providers' business models, which are centered on multiyear, fixed contracts," Munch said. "But technically, it has been constrained by providers' billing and operational systems not being fully integrated. [These systems are also] not integrated with the provisioning of services, which introduces a lot of manual activities."
Let us know what you think about the story; email: Jessica Scarpati, News Writer