Reimagining the network for the cloud

cloud data cable

In every IT era we overestimate our ability to put new technology to work. The cloud is no different -- it still takes too long to build even rudimentary networks in the cloud environment. Think about all those VPNs that were built in 2020. You need to buy a box, certify, test, deploy, sort out licensing. It’s weeks or months for a solution that provides a level of security (up to a point) but little flexibility or performance. When the business needs changes, you need to do it all again.

What you want is a holistic environment with all the advantages of a data center but none of the drawbacks of centralization. You need something that connects you not just to, but through the cloud, out to the edge and to wherever your people and partners are. You want to be able to manage this as effectively as an on-prem system even though it’s massively distributed. You need to know what’s going on everywhere, so you need complete security, visibility and management controls that treat the entire cloud as a single entity even if it encompasses multiple public and private clouds. You also need to be able to secure it and apply all the governance and controls needed to satisfy regulators and your auditors.

Plenty of vendors offer a piece of the solution. SD-WAN vendors such as Cisco provide cloud gateways, but these essentially take you to the edge of the cloud. They don’t help you to insert or manage services such as security.

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Other vendors offer orchestration solutions that reduce the number of tools network engineers need to learn to manage each cloud, but the engineers still need deep knowledge of each environment to make them work.

Even if enterprises decide to place all their bets with a single cloud provider, building the kind of holistic environment enterprises need is an expensive, complex and lengthy undertaking.   

Behind the curve

Today we need to be a little skeptical of claims of "cloud agility" -- great for buying a server, storage, a website or an ecommerce front-end quickly. Now we want to take the same benefits of speed and agility and apply them to enterprise services.

Enterprises are investing in infrastructure as-a-service (IaaS) and moving their applications to the cloud to access efficiencies of scale and advanced capabilities that would be difficult or impossible to achieve on-prem. This is a competitive imperative for enterprises today. Democratized access to compute and storage in the cloud has leveled the playing field and lowered barriers for disruptors.  Whether they are born-in-the-cloud start-ups or established businesses, the organizations that succeed will be those that harness the power of cloud.

It’s now possible to rapidly test, iterate, deploy, and pivot in delivering innovative services leveraging cloud. This value is amplified through advanced services like AI, machine learning, data analytics and IoT.  

Strategies like containerization and microservices further abstract underlying complexity and give enterprises optimal choice and agility in where the applications are hosted, and what underlying infrastructure and services are used to deliver value. This abstraction and associated automation provide maximum velocity in delivering differentiated services to the marketplace.  These are hallmarks of cloud-ready operating models and best practices.

Until now, equivalent constructs have been unavailable for networking. Networks still operate in silos, with separate solutions stitched together to meet the end-to-end workflow needs of enterprises. The proliferation of cloud has further complicated the network landscape. Visibility, control, and governance are a bigger challenge than ever.  And existing network paradigms are inconsistent with the agility and velocity of innovation made possible by cloud. Networking is still seen as a cost to be managed, rather than a source of strategic advantage.  

The reimagined network

The reimagined network can be a strategic competitive differentiator for this cloud-first era. Just as containerization standardizes application development frameworks, a cloud native, software defined, rich network stack can standardize networking across clouds and deliver on a broad spectrum of enterprise use cases.  Just as microservices give application developers optimal flexibility in consuming resources for building scalable and differentiated applications, so can networking when it is delivered as a service, on demand and scaled to meet the needs of each enterprise. 

Networking needs to follow the lead set by storage, compute, and advanced services into as-a-service consumption with all the agility, flexibility, efficiencies, and scale one would expect.  This type of standardization and automation provides the velocity the business needs, with guardrails for your networking. It’s an operating model that can keep pace with cloud innovation demands.

Ultimately the objective of moving to cloud is to glean value from the efficiencies of scale, agility, and advanced services that otherwise would be untenable. It’s to release new capabilities in days rather than months. It’s to pivot quickly when market and competitive dynamics change. If your application development efforts follow a different set of paradigms than your networking strategy, and they are inconsistent with each other, then you’re likely at a competitive disadvantage. 

If your networking strategy gates agility and hinders your business from delivering differentiated services, then it’s likely time to revisit and rethink the underlying assumptions and paradigms.  It’s time for a mindset shift in the role of a network as an enabler.

Staying in control

Crucially, we want all the benefits of the power and availability of the cloud without surrendering control. Unless the CIO can convince the board that corporate governance policies can be applied as robustly in the cloud as in more traditional IT environments, critical applications are going to stay locked away in the data center. Expect governance of cloud networks to be high on the agenda at ONUG Spring.  

What if we could use a virtual construct to extend your network into the cloud? What if you could make the cloud an extension of your enterprise systems, consume and manage services in the same way as if they were provided on-prem? What if I could take an image of my security policy, my firewalls, my enforcement and put them in the cloud? It’s not somebody else’s stuff that I have to manage and control, but my stuff. The server in the cloud looks exactly like the server in my data center.

Technology to create enterprise class network services in the cloud is starting to appear from companies like Alkira with its cloud networking as-a-service (CNaaS) platform. Matt Hoag, CTO of Koch Global Services who was an ONUG Fall 2021 speaker said "Alkira is doing for networking what Amazon did for compute." 

There are still some things to think about, such as usage management and billing, as well as some governance issues, but fundamentally the technology has reached the point where I can consume cloud exactly as if it were on-prem. The virtualized model also dramatically cuts timing for deployment of network connectivity and higher-level services from months and years to hours or days.

The network-enabled cloud

Organizations need to think about how their business services are planned, built, run, supported and managed in the same way they would manage any complex ecosystem. That’s a big enough challenge without also having to worry about every aspect of the underlying technical infrastructure.

How do I apply  security policies across my organization? How do I scale capacity in line with demand? How do I deploy new services quickly? How do I reconfigure the business to respond to new opportunities or trading conditions?

Enterprises want shorter, simpler, quicker answers to these questions, not to be told that they need to spend more time and money developing software or building and running their own networks.

Image credit: Nomadsoul1/depositphotos.com

Ernest Lefner is co-founder and co-chair of ONUG, which provides a collective voice to power digital enterprise transformations. ONUG Board members include some of the world’s biggest enterprises with a value of $1.6 trillion. The issues covered here will explored at ONUG Spring 2021, May 5th-6th, a global virtual event that will examine the technologies, delivery models and strategies critical to our digital transformation models.

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