I’ve been having a lot of conversations lately about networking (particularly WAN or Edge networking) as a key enabler of business agility. So many, in fact, that I decided to take this opportunity to jot down a few of my thoughts.
What is Business Agility?
Before we dive into the specifics of how PacketFabric’s NaaS can improve your business agility it’s worth taking a moment to define ‘business agility’ in today’s context. While this may feel a bit simple or even pedantic I think the exercise is actually quite worthwhile.
Agility and agile are among the many words that have been adopted by managers, marketers, and others to such an extent that they are at risk of becoming meaningless buzzwords. Agility isn’t the first word to suffer this fate. It joins a long line, including ‘cloud,’ ‘edge,’ and ‘synergy.’ All great words, but all now overloaded and in need of further definition or context to be made useful again.
On the one hand we have the Agile (capital ‘A’) and agile (lower case ‘a’) distinction – with Agile referring to a specific set of software development practices. While that is related, we are not today talking about ‘capital A’ Agile. On the other hand we have the fact that agility and agile are actually words that originally referred to physical abilities in individual humans. Agility in this more traditional usage refers to one’s ability to move with grace, to quickly change the position of one’s body. And while these definitions hint at why we’ve repurposed the word to describe businesses, they are not granular enough to convey the full scope of our current meaning.
Defining Modern Business Agility
So, what do we mean when we talk about business agility these days? We are obviously borrowing the fundamental concepts of quick and graceful movement using a combination of balance, speed, strength, and coordination within our organizations. But these skills and concepts are still quite general. Today business agility is tied up in the effective application of technology and the unstoppable digitization of our lives and work.
The adoption of cloud in all its various forms (IaaS, PaaS, SaaS, FaaS, etc.) both provides and demands business agility. Cloud provides business agility by allowing many IT services to be turned-up and turned-down on demand, often with just the click of a button. In some cases even the push of a button isn’t needed due to automation built into the system. Our applications can burst into as much compute and storage as they need, when they need it and we don’t have to pay for it when we don’t. Our Customer Relationship Management (CRMs) and Enterprise Resource Planning (ERPs) can take in seemingly infinite amounts of data with no requirement for us to provision additional physical resources, ever.
But cloud and the other enabling trends of digital transformation also demand business agility. Internally, in order to capitalize on the flexibility of any technology or service, the adjacent systems must often become faster or more flexible themselves. And externally, the more our customers are exposed to extreme agility in one area of their business, the more they require from all of their vendors. In many ways digital has come to mean agile, and has become an expectation. This demands that all of our back end systems provide the same level of agility as we want and need to provide to our customers.
This “agility in pursuit of agility” is really what we mean when we talk about modern business agility. It’s not about one product or one service or one layer in our technology stack. It’s a chain where one weak (less agile) link can cause the whole of our business to be less agile, and therefore less competitive.
NaaS for WAN Agility
For a very long time our networks, especially the wide area networks (WAN) that connect our businesses to customers, service providers, and distinct offices or locations have been a major challenge to agility. The primary reason for this is that network connectivity is fundamental to essentially every other technology we use. These days, if the network is down, our business is down. So the network simply must be reliable, and that has almost always trumped agility. If we can’t have both, we are forced to choose reliability.
Network as a service (NaaS) is now starting to challenge that paradigm. When done right, NaaS provides both traditional network reliability and modern digital agility. NaaS promises us that we can manage our network like we manage other cloud services. To work, this promise must be backed up by at least three components; automation, an as-a-service approach, and massive physical network capacity.
- Automation: Legacy networks are designed, built, and operated as a collection of devices. To unlock the kind of network agility that can support our required business agility this isn’t good enough anymore. We must think of our networks as distributed systems. And we must eliminate slow and error prone manual configuration and troubleshooting. We can do this ourselves in the networks we manage in-house and we can demand the same from any and all network service providers we work with.
- As-a-service: Managed networks are nothing new. They have been available in many forms from ISPs, NSPs, and dedicated MSPs for a long time now. One of the things that sets NaaS apart from these more traditional network offerings is right there in the name; as-a-service. The primary difference? Managed services require that you call a person to turn up a new service, turn down an old one, or troubleshoot an existing one. With as-a-service all of this is done through a portal or an API.
- Network Capacity: Even the fanciest automation and APIs will never change one fact; networks require physical connectivity. If the underlying network doesn’t have the needed path or the needed capacity, then the network service cannot be provisioned on-demand. This may seem obvious, but it is the achilles heel of many current NaaS offerings. If your network provider is quoting 30, 60, 90, 120 or more days for provisioning, that’s not NaaS. A true NaaS must have the available capacity to respond to your needs in real-time. Imagine waiting for AWS, GCP, or Azure to go buy servers before they turn up the compute you need – that’s not agile, and it’s not how cloud works.
WAN Agility is Business Agility
The adoption of more and more cloud services has had many effects on our businesses. One that must be touched on to really understand the power of NaaS is deperimeterization. What the what? I promise the concept is easier to grasp than the word is to pronounce. What we’re really talking about here is the move of our applications and employees from behind the firewall to beyond the firewall.
The earliest digital businesses put computers on everyone’s desk, and servers in a closet or basement or whatever they could use as an on-site server room. All of that was connected on a local network to a firewall that provided secure internet access for the small amount of data that needed to leave the LAN. All the applications we needed were right there on the LAN with our PCs and connectivity and security were pretty straightforward.
Then we started moving applications out of the office, first to data centers and collocation facilities and more recently to the cloud (totally beyond our firewalls). I don’t run CRM software on a server in my office anymore. Now I use a SaaS application that’s accessible over the internet. And that’s true of almost all my applications – even the ones that my own company develops. They are hosted in a cloud on the internet. This is challenging because it makes the internet a core part of my company’s IT stack despite it being a best-effort service that I can’t really control.
And that of course is why NaaS is such a powerful enabler of business agility. Your WAN—the network that connects your various locations to your data and applications wherever they may live—is more critical than ever and yet is often the weakest link in the business agility chain. It is no longer acceptable to call the telephone company and then wait 4 months for a new circuit to be turned up in order to scale data transfers between critical applications. We all need a WAN that responds to our business needs on demand. We all need NaaS.
As we learned above, not all NaaS are created equal. PacketFabric stands out because it was built from the ground up as a NaaS. The foundation is a 65+T private optical network with diversity, redundancy, and path-protection built in. On top of that is an Ethernet fabric using the latest in packet switching technology and end-to-end automation. Next up is a standards-based REST API, giving you access to their entire network for on-demand, private, and secure connectivity services. And in case your company is not quite ready to automate your own network, PacketFabric provides a web portal as well, where you can deploy, upgrade, and scale services in minutes.
This approach has paid off for many customers already. In one example I was recently made aware of, PacketFabric and their partner SADA helped a client move 30PB (yes, that’s PetaBytes) of data from one cloud provider to another. This transfer would have taken the client over a year and cost them around $1.4M, but with PacketFabric’s NaaS the job was done in only 5 months and cost only about $600,000 – a savings of 53%.
There are many more case studies published on PacketFabric’s website.
Real business agility requires support from each and every piece of our technology stack. Networks have been a weak link for far too long. Luckily, NaaS, like that offered by PacketFabric, is changing the way we manage networks – and enabling them to support the agility our digital businesses require.
Learn why PacketFabric was named a Fast Mover and an Innovative Platform Player in the latest GigaOm Radar Report for Evaluating Network as a Service.
In addition to their REST API, PacketFabric now also offers a Terraform Provider to help make automating your network for business agility even easier. I recently chatted with Romain Jouhannet on a webinar about simplifying multi-cloud infrastructure automation using Terraform. You can check out the recording here!