Redistribution of the WAN: why building back better means smarter networks
How will the enterprise WAN adapt to the unstoppable shift
towards remote working?
Make no mistakes, this is no passing fad. This is a significant development in society’s attitudes to work and the workplace. In this latest article, we explore the challenges that the shift presents to traditional WANs, and finish off by describing a candidate technology and solution.
We’ll begin by looking at the office in perspective. To understand its evolution, we have to go back…
1769 was a year to remember…
Captain James Cook set out on his first voyage. The Morning Chronicle newspaper was established and gave Charles Dickens his first regular writing job.
James Watt patented a design that doubled the efficiency of steam engines, which interested Richard Arkwright. In that year he opened the world’s first ‘manufactory’: a purpose-built, multi-storey facility housing his patented spinning frames.
It introduced the mass production of cotton thread – a process previously carried out by independent, home-based craft workers. So you could say that 1769 was the year which cemented – pretty literally – the concept of work as a place, rather than a process.
In all the time that’s passed, through the shifts in our industrial make-up, society and technology, we never seriously questioned or challenged that model…
We continued to build sales ‘factories’, accounting factories, legal factories. But at the very moment when we might have been celebrating the 250th anniversary of the office, the commute and the traffic jam, everything changed.
The full ramifications of the COVID pandemic may take decades to work through but one thing seems pretty clear: the office we knew is behind us. The office of the future will need to be reimagined to a different brief. An unstructured space, maybe, where creativity, a culture and camaraderie can blossom?
When you look at it that way, any communal or public space could function as a workplace. Think about a new role for high street hospitality, for instance: goodbye ‘dine and dash’, hello ‘meet-up and feet up’. Remote-first isn’t about working in one place: it’s about working in the right place for the task at hand.
So in a change every bit as sudden and profound as that presaged by Arkwright’s mill, we’re undergoing a root and branch rethink of the nature of work, the role of the office, and much of the infrastructure that surrounds it. This is disruption in action. Expect it to ripple through into transportation systems and urban design and maybe even the purpose of cities.
We’re going to focus on the implications for telecoms infrastructure and enterprise wide area networking as society makes its huge and lasting shift towards (…or back to) a decentralised, more flexible and above all remote-first working model.
No WAN is an island
The office of the past was an island of security and connectivity in an ocean of threat and uncertainty.
At least that’s how IT teams traditionally viewed it. A warm, safe place with unlimited computing behind a secure perimeter, and well-managed breakout to the world at large.
But of course, there’s nobody there now. And in a future where we’ve reimagined and reinvented the office – as a venue rather than a production line – we’ll need what remains of our commercial real estate to perform pretty differently.
The mega office as a workplace has been atomised into thousands of micro offices in kitchens, bedrooms, community spaces and coffee shops. And, if you’re lucky enough, a dedicated home office.
This talks to a rethink and redistribution of the bandwidth, performance and experience of the old centralised enterprise WAN and its services. To thousands of unknown locations. Probably to home networks with all kinds of flaky, consumery, WiFi enabled whatnots connected to it.
Technically and culturally this is a great big leap into the uncertain. It’s not that long ago that if you wanted access to ‘office’ services remotely then a secure VPN was your only option.
And the chances are that the VPN was tethered to a corporate laptop. And that laptop was locked down tighter than the proverbial gnat’s backside in a sandstorm…
Look at this through the eyes of your salespeople, customer service teams, developers, lawyers, accountants and creatives.
Remote-first isn’t a workaround for the here and now. It’s a permanent shift in the nature of work. And it’s also a mindset: one that prioritises flexibility over fixed location. So, getting connected is just a starting point. They need to feel connected too.
Hooked up to colleagues in bold and subtle ways. In touch with the organisation’s culture still, feeling like they’ve got their finger on the pulse. You can search your own experience for how that is.
But you’re a technologist, not a psychologist. So let’s think about how the network user experience helps deliver that connected feeling. Is it safe to assume that it might depend somewhat on the person’s role?
If your job is answering customer questions and solving their problems – a contact centre role – you can’t prosper unless you have continuous, effortless access to all of the well-structured channels and systems you rely on.
Maybe more than most, you’re going to need a strong ‘presence’ vibe with colleagues and experts on your team, enabling you to reach them for guidance or approval instantaneously.
At the other end of the spectrum, marketers, designers, content creators etc are going to be more freeform. They’ll want periods of quiet and focus. They’ll have more latitude to search out and explore new software and services – which is another way of saying that their needs are more unpredictable. Between the creatives and the contact centre sit most of the rest of us.
Do those considerations influence planning at the level of the networks? You’re not going to have the luxury of certainty. These are volatile and unpredictable times. So preparedness, rather than detailed planning, is your best way ahead.
Remote-first networking must-haves
We’ve learned the hard way that domestic broadband as it stands is not really fit for remote-first purposes. DSL services can struggle with multi-party Teams and Zoom calls.
It’s also having to cope with simultaneous domestic use, including from hungry apps like Netflix. It would be good to think that you could just throw more bandwidth at the problem.
Full fibre broadband is the panacea, but according to the Fibre to the Home Council, as of March 2020 the UK was 33rd in the European league table of homes connected directly to fibre, at just 3% – and I’m rounding up. Virgin’s HFC network passes around 45% of UK homes – but exclusively in cities.
The cyber attack surface presented by many homes is, firstly, pretty vast and , secondly, not directly under your control. In fact it’s often not under anyone’s control.
Setting aside for now the usual plethora of laptops, tablets and smartphones that multiple family members will use: there are also smart tvs, gaming consoles and a flood tide of IoT devices such as smart doorbells, smart thermostats, and smart power sockets.
They all present an app or browser interface to the world. They may have weak passwords to begin with, and password sharing will be commonplace. You’re probably doing all you can to promote safe behaviour and good practice. But for the long term you need better than that
The best endeavours break-fix times of domestic broadband are another hurdle to overcome. The last mile of DSL networks is notoriously unreliable.
HFC, and full fibre in particular, have much higher availability of course – but see above. Some roles – say contact centre – will need a failover option. Others may make do with business-class service level agreements.
Whatever solutions you adopt for the top three requirements, you’ll likely give yourself a privacy headache.
A firewall, a WAN accelerator, a dedicated business broadband connection into homes: all will almost certainly directly or inadvertently collect personal or sensitive information about the user and/or other members of the household.
Explore Nano networks
The solution we’re seeking is clearly headed in the direction of some kind of managed WAN service, offering the big office experience at the nano scale.
The challenge is to come up with a solution that’s practical and affordable at the level of thousands of network nodes, rather than tens of hundreds.
The leading candidate is SD-WAN. Software defined networking originated to offer flexibility and simplicity in hyperscale data centres.
The innovation of separating the control pane from switching, and running it on a central, cloud-driven route controller, has made service provision as simple as ‘point and click’, eliminating the nightmare of configuration via hundreds of command line interfaces.
SD-WAN is predicated on intelligent, application-driven dynamic routing.
Importantly, the user experience can be measured, optimised and in some cases automated with machine learning and AI. Mission critical services are identified and prioritised over less important application.
Crucially, it works brilliantly as an overlay on basic broadband connectivity, with failover via 4G services as an option. It’s a bonus that the home office hardware (soft appliances are an option) is also cheaper than conventional routers.
Given the application and service flow intelligence baked into the solution, it’s also the technology that’s most likely to mitigate the threats to security and individual privacy.
The simplicity and low operational costs are tempting established service providers to step into this new arena. As is the clear demand being signalled by some of the largest enterprises in the country.
The decentralised WAN is about to blossom, and on a scale that unimaginable at the start of 2020. It’s time to explore what’s desirable, what’s optimal, and what’s actually achievable on the ground.
Begin by asking your colleagues across the business what they need to be effective and feel connected. Don’t rely on surmise or conjecture. Be sensitive to the privacy issue that you’re about to compound. You’ve already faced a similar conundrum with BYOD and mobile device management. There’s a thinking framework there that might give some insights.
Be prepared for people to not want a second line, second router, second WiFi extender cluttering and complicating their homes. Or to not want to give up an unmanaged by fast Virgin connection for some vanilla, much slower managed DSL service.
If, like Cook, you feel like you’re heading into unchartered waters, then you are not alone. I hope this article feels at least a little like a compass for the voyage. We’re all making that historical shift to remote-first. And we’re all being asked to let our employer into our homes and lives in more ways than we would ever have imagined.
So there’s a conversation to be had, some compromises to be reached, and a deal to be done. The more questions you answer up front, the more prepared you can be. And the better deal you can offer, the smoother it will go. Good luck.