I enjoy my job immensely. Having the responsibility to evaluate new technologies for introduction into our network at a time when the pace of change is unprecedented and only accelerating, ensures I’m constantly exposed to new and often amazing innovations. As a self-anointed ‘infophile’, I thoroughly appreciate diving deep into the inner-workings of how technologies function and exploring how best to incorporate them into our world-class network and services. I’m thankfully surrounded by many truly brilliant engineers here at Windstream Enterprise with a similar affliction.
But, here’s the thing, as a telco/ISP industry, we have grossly failed the overwhelming majority of those we serve by extending our love for what should remain esoteric protocols, standards, and componentry into how we expose our products and services. In many cases, there are legitimate reasons why the industry has gone down this path.
Making networks accessible
For one, the path often requires massive investment to keep up with the never-ending arms races amongst carriers. Shifting from a 4G network to a 5G-enabled network is a good example. Publicly highlighting the underlying technological investment conveys performance improvement—or at least the perception of performance improvement. This goes far beyond a marketing discussion however. It’s more about how customers interact with services to achieve their desired outcomes and experiences. At Windstream Enterprise, we focus on delivering the best customer experience and keeping that experience as straightforward and intuitive as possible. A big part of this focus is enabled by to our aggressive pivot toward programmable networks (PN). The chief mission of our PN strategy is to make networks accessible. Achieving this vision requires abstracting the complexity of networking and enabling our customers to focus on what matters to them: their content and experience.
Determining software defined
In my experience, it generally takes a deep mastery of complex subjects to describe it in layman’s terms. Don’t believe me? Try teaching physics to a kindergartner. We’re squarely in the age of ‘software-defined everything’, which often carries the promise of simplified, accessible networking. I believe much of the IT industry recognizes the many software-defined platforms and solutions are anything but simple. There are many criteria one might apply to determine how software-defined something is:
Can it be virtualized easily?
Is it “cloud native”?
Is the control plane separated from the data plane?
Are there robust and open APIs for consumption?
I would submit that software-defined in the context of managed services should be synonymous with simplified and accessible. If otherwise, question it heavily.
Historical network deployment vs. a programmable network deployment
Moving beyond the somewhat abstract and buzz-word laden view, perhaps it’s helpful to take a common deployment example and unpack how it might look in a historic approach and a programmable network solution. Let’s take the fictitious nationwide retailer Acme Tires Inc. Acme leverages proprietary point-of-sale and inventory software hosted in their private data center. They’re no strangers to network blips and have determined that every minute that a retail store loses connectivity for this application equates to $5,000 in lost revenue. So, it’s vital this app maintain high availability. It’s also requisite that the connectivity be highly secure as it’s handling credit card transactions.
What’s that look like historically? (brace yourself for the techno-jargon that follows)
Likely an MPLS connection at each store where the point-of-sale traffic is marked with the appropriate DCSP values of AF21 or AF22 applied from the LAN interface of a router segmenting by 802.1q VLAN then traversing a private MPLS VRF and leveraging eBGP peering to advertise link state on a CIDR block-level to enable failover of the data center between redundant UNIs. The data center probably leverages VRRP for a redundant hardware deployment as it’s aggregating multiple sites. I could go on and on, but you get the point; lots of complex protocols that need to be setup precisely to ensure expected performance. Otherwise, the assistant store manager’s tendency to play Fortnite from her cell phone may cause credit card transactions to take minutes to complete or customer phone calls to be choppy.
Once established and all the bugs are worked out, maybe the setup works well to the extent everything remains static. But how many business or home networks remain static for long these days? What happens when corporate headquarters decides to shift from the proprietary CRM running in the data center and adopt Salesforce in the cloud? How does the new network admin who wasn’t around for the initial access‑control‑list based policies go about figuring out the appropriate changes to ensure things continue to work smoothly in the new setup? How do they know how much traffic the current setup is generating or the baseline performance? You’re probably beginning to get a sense of the strain and challenges the traditional MPLS L3VPN model suffers as more and more shifts to cloud.
How does that look different in a programmable network solution?
For starters, rather than being provided a complex mapping of DIFFERV to MPLS EXP values and associate queue handling, perhaps the IT administrator is provided with a few questions via an intuitive interface to guide them through setting up security and prioritization policies of what’s most important to their business.
Prioritizing the customer experience
Maybe as a business owner or IT administrator, you’re given a few questions or an intuitive user interface to guide you through setting up the policy of what’s most important to your business. Is Salesforce the absolute most critical application for you? Click the radio button and the programmable network takes the complexity out of treating that traffic in a secure and prioritized manner. Programmable networking doesn’t end at application-level prioritization though. It extends to ensuring higher reliability, greater visibility, simplified connectivity between sites and the cloud, and intuitive self-service capabilities.
The bottom line is, technology that only serves to further complicate our lives should never be embraced. That’s why approaching solutions from the customer’s experience first and continuing to bring to market world-class solutions that our customers love is our priority here at Windstream Enterprise. And, with a little discipline from geeks like myself, truly simplifying the experience without all the technojargon that no one should ever have to care about.
Like so many buzzwords, SDN (software-defined networking) has been abused, perhaps that’s why several companies have been hiding it1, and aspects of SDN are taking on new names such as network automation and intent-based networking—and, of course, SD-WAN (for SDN at the edge). Whatever you call it, SDN is based on the deceivingly simple principle of decoupling network control and forwarding functions, increasing network agility in many ways:
Reaping the benefits of SDN
These benefits of SDN impact all facets of networking. It’s made its mark in the world of content delivery, making content delivery networks elastic and able to support bandwidth bursting through pre-determined policies rather than guessing how much bandwidth is needed in advance of high-traffic viewing. As over-the-top (OTT), on‑demand content continues to rise in popularity, software-defined networking allows content providers to save on both CAPEX and OPEX investments. Of course, the potential applications for SDN go well beyond CDN.
Service providers have been implementing SDN, although a lot of the work done to date falls under the “un-sexy” category. Reaping the benefits of SDN requires a great deal of foundational work. You need a real-time understanding of what network resources are available and their relationships. You must be able to configure disparate equipment across multiple domains through an abstracted software layer. You must also automate provisioning workflows and processes. This foundational work is needed to enable flexible and controllable “sexy” products.
The Windstream Wholesale advantage
At Windstream Wholesale, we’ve combined SDN with complementary technologies (network function virtualization and programmable network), overlaid on our nationwide fiber backbone to create our Cloud CoreTM network architecture which is the foundation for our portfolio of networking services. With this approach, we’ve improved the speed to provision and deploy necessary high-capacity connections such as wavelengths for content providers that constantly need additional bandwidth and unique routing to improve the delivery of high-definition content to end-users.
Today, content providers can benefit from Windstream Wholesale’s ultra-fast provisioning of wavelengths up to 100 Gbps via our Cloud Core network architecture and diverse routes connecting PoPs in Tier 2 and Tier 3 markets to most popular Tier 1 PoPs, carrier hotels and data centers, bringing content closer to their end-users and improving the overall content experience.
Gone are the days of pre-provisioning physical hardware well in advance of hard‑to‑anticipate events in an attempt to keep up with the public’s insatiable appetite for on‑demand content. SDN has enabled a clearer path for all the supporting elements of content delivery. And, with the foundation laid, the future possibilities seem limitless.
If you’ve had a relationship with Windstream Enterprise in the past, it may surprise you how much we’ve changed. We’ve always had a strong focus on our customers and a top-to-bottom sense of responsibility to provide the best experience in the industry. But historically, I wouldn’t have characterized us as a technology leader in our space. That’s changed in a big way. Over the past few years we’ve been hard at work on evolving our network infrastructure. Going forward, we’re differentiating not only by our support, but also by our level of innovation and application of technologies from both in and outside of the traditional telecom space. Much of which culminates in the development of our Cloud Core Network architecture.
What do we mean by Cloud Core Network? Let’s parse the phrase a bit to get a better sense for what it represents.
Everything today starts with the cloud
The word cloud seems omnipresent these days and is applied to so many aspects of life, it’s sometimes hard to put a single definition to it. My own earliest recollections involve depictions of network devices ( routers, switches, computers) portrayed as a cloud as a means of shorthand rather than drawing out a blur of devices connected in a mesh fashion.
This became a common technique for visualizing the Internet and ultimately grew to be more closely associated with centralized compute/store infrastructure in addition to networking aspects. Often, we most commonly associated the term cloud with commodity infrastructure from the likes of like AWS, Azure, or Google.
At any rate, the term is a bit fungible, but there are a few definitional characteristics that have made the cloud so successful. Fundamental aspects like elasticity and cost-efficiency come to mind. Being able to leverage common infrastructure for multiple customer workloads while building in the notion of oversubscription across that infrastructure; a technique that’s been employed by utility providers since time immemorial.
But I would submit that what has truly enabled cloud proliferation can be found in its simplicity. Abstracting the complexity of all the data center resources required to instantiate virtual machines or serverless compute functions via a simple API, web portal, or mobile app with no knowledge or awareness of the physical or logical infrastructure that powers your application on an on-demand basis. Some might refer to this as the platform or SaaS approach. This seemingly benign capability has been the catalyst for much of the digital disruption happening all around us.
What it means to be cloud to the core
But what connotations do we draw from the term core? For Internet Service Providers this has always been associated with the largest, most resilient/protected, and vital components of the network. Those that aggregate all customer traffic to/from the Internet and ensure highly-performant and secure connectivity for customers across the ISP’s footprint. Similar to the cloud, the core is always the most heavily scaled aspect of any carrier’s network. For Windstream Enterprise, scale at the core translates to multi-terabit per fiber pair (and growing) at an optical level and Nx100G (and growing) at the IP/MPLS level. The core is also most often associated with traffic exchange to other ISPs and content providers by way of protocols like BGP. ISP’s (including WE) go to great lengths to ensure the core is highly-available and approaches as near to 100% uptime as possible.
Value of Cloud Core is greater than the sum of its parts
In many ways, what’s meant by the term Cloud Core is the sum of its parts; a highly resilient, available, secure and performant set of network services, exposed in a cost-effective, on-demand, and elastic way as a Network Platform through a set of simplified APIs and user interfaces. But while it’s accurate and appropriate to view the Cloud Core Network in this light, it’s even more instructive to dig slightly deeper into what constitutes the Cloud Core Network and why how it helps solve your business challenges.
The technical aspects of the Cloud Core network are too numerous to articulate in a short blog, but I’d like to touch on two of the most critical: disaggregation and abstraction.
Disaggregation: Perhaps the hottest topic amongst carriers over the last few years, disaggregation is a principle that’s being applied to almost every area of networking; from the decoupling of optical systems into ‘whitebox’ transponders, open line systems, and management systems through projects like Telecom Infrastructure Project Voyager, to the concept of pulling apart physical access methods like GPON and wireless RAN into piece parts and transforming telco central offices into mini data centers through projects like CORD. Windstream is an active participant in both these initiatives and aggressively pursuing both thrusts of network disaggregation as they are key areas for how telco/ISP networks will evolve going forward.
But another angle of disaggregation is perhaps even more meaningful where the Cloud Core Network is concerned: that of microservices. Microservice Architectures are nothing new to webscale players and have increasingly made their way into Enterprise IT environments for their ability to strike a strong balance between speed of delivery and safety of development through things like automated QA and orchestrated horizontal scaling. I’ll stop short of an exposition around all the principles and practices of Microservices-based architecture for now, but will relate that Windstream was an early adopter of microservices in our network ecosystem. And it’s our intention and vision to transform every growth function of our network into a set of cloud native microservices, capable of bringing a new era of modularity, scalability, agility, and programmability into the network.
The visual below illustrates how every layer from customer premise to long-haul and cloud data center will be disaggregated into microservices, chained together for fully programmable network capable of evolving at incredible pace through the use of a continuous integration and continuous deployment pipeline.
Abstraction: I’m not sure there’s a more foundational software development practice/principle than abstraction. The surest way to ensure modularity and portability in software is to employ abstraction via normalized APIs and data models as often as practical. This is a central tenant for how we approach the Cloud Core Network as well. By leveraging an increasingly course set of APIs as we move from physical – aka bare metal – infrastructure up to the logical or virtual network functions, we’re able to take the complexity that exists from thousands of network elements, signaling protocols, virtual network functions, and connections and expose that as a simple set of outcome or intent-based APIs.
We refer to them as outcome-based because they allow customers to describe the outcome or experience they want to achieve in simple business-related terms rather than a complex and esoteric set of parameters like DCSP, VRF, QAM, or MOS. To be sure, outcome-based services done well require more than simple abstraction, but making the complex simple starts with applying this longstanding software design principle to our network.
Putting the Cloud Core Network to Work at Windstream Enterprise
As you can probably discern by now, this term Cloud Core Network holds both a great deal of meaning to us and is a huge enabler for our customers. Our ultimate goal is to ensure we’re unlocking real business value for our customers by providing optimized yet secure connectivity for their critical applications in simplest and most cost effective-manner possible. As interesting and cool as I think these technologies are, the Cloud Core Network is ultimately not about technology. It’s about enabling the experience they want and empowering them to consume it on their own terms. And that makes it one of the most powerful concepts that’s come along in enterprise networks in a long time, indeed.
Jargon can make even the most exciting new technology seem scary. Yet, for reasons unexplained, technology companies can’t stop themselves from using ‘tech speak’. Network technology is experiencing its biggest transformation in decades, with incredible benefits to enterprise customers. Yet, we can’t help but obscure the significance of what’s happening by using acronyms (SDN, NFV, PN, SD-WAN) to refer to and complicate the building blocks of this change.
That’s unfortunate, because beneath the acronyms lies a fundamental change of the way networks function, separating the “brains” (routing) from the “brawn” (packet forwarding). This deceivingly simple concept is powerful because it centralizes the intelligence and puts the user in control of the network, enabling it to be more dynamic and robust. It’s such a powerful concept, it holds the potential to enable companies everywhere to deliver on the promise of IT/digital transformation and innovate in ways that are simply not possible with traditional networks. Especially those organizations on a high-speed path to the cloud.
Innovating from the “outside-in” is a start, but has limits
The most visible of these acronyms, SD-WAN, has been taking the industry by storm, empowering businesses of all sizes to better manage their networks through elastic connectivity, application-based routing, centralized policy management and powerful visibility/analytics. While many of these benefits can be realized “over the top”, without service provider enablement (or awareness), this DIY, “outside-in” approach can be complex and, quite frankly, misses-out on the true potential SD-WAN technology can deliver. With the underpinning service provider connectivity as an unwitting participant, the core network remains rigid and inefficient. It’s akin to the early days of the automobile era. You may have a cool new car with an internal combustion engine, but you’re still limited by the pothole-riddled roads of the early 20th century.
An “inside-out” Cloud Core approach
What many in enterprise IT don’t know is the full potential offered by these technologies can only be realized if service providers adopt an “inside-out” approach to transform the way their own networks function. In the prior analogy, we need to change the way we build “roads” to align with the new vehicles that drive on those roads. At Windstream Enterprise, we’re embracing and combining this wave of new technologies to enable efficient and flexible network configuration, performance-optimize routing for real-time communications and other latency-sensitive traffic, and enable proactive monitoring and repair. We refer to our approach as our Cloud Core network architecture.
In the cloud, the service provider’s network matters
Unlike traditional networks, our Cloud Core architecture couples the ability to share functions on common hardware with a centralized, software-centric configuration offering end-to-end orchestration and management of components across various domains of our network. This allows us to accelerate service delivery and configuration, adjust traffic flows for optimal performance and speed trouble resolution. Combined with our self-service portal providing control, analytics and enablement across multiple services, and you start to unleash the network’s full potential. Which, in an anytime, anywhere, cloud centric communications/computing environment, can be a huge differentiator.
Committed to the core
As most anyone in enterprise IT can attest, delivering against expectations today requires new perspectives. At WE, we’re committed to this path with the goal of putting full control over the “brains” of the services in our customers’ hands. The first fruits of our labor can be seen in our SD-WAN Concierge, which boasts a full self-service portal, and which is optimized to deliver the highest QoS, as well as with OfficeSuite UC, our easy to use UCaaS solution. We’ve also applied this to our Wavelength Services and have plans to do so to our Ethernet services and a next-gen firewall solution to be rolled out later this year. All good examples of the kind of transformational thinking you should expect from your service provider as you transform your business to adapt and thrive in today’s fast-changing, cloud-centric environment.
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