Cloud WAN architecture: Enterprises rethink networks for the cloud era

Shamus McGillicuddy

Public cloud services have upended the traditional approach to wide area networking, and engineers need to respond.

Enterprises have been pouring cash into cloud services, particularly Software as a Service (SaaS), but they have failed to invest in the changes to network architecture required to deliver acceptable performance and user experience, according to Andre Kindness, senior analyst with Cambridge, Mass.-based Forrester Research Inc. A new cloud WAN architecture is needed.

While enterprises have embraced public cloud services, they have made network upgrades a low priority, according to a Forrester study sponsored by Juniper Networks and XO Communications. The study, which surveyed 154 enterprises, found that network upgrades and refreshes were ranked sixth for IT organizations over the last three years, with only 47% of respondents saying they had made such investments. This lack of network spending coincides with a wave of cloud adoption that demands a new approach to networking, Kindness said.

"It's the whole issue of the networking team not being in synch with the rest of [the] infrastructure and operations," Kindness said. "And also, people just think of the network as being like your old telephone. You pick it up and it works. They think it will be there, and if they need to, they'll just throw more bandwidth at it and it will be there."

Slowly, chief information officers are learning that throwing bandwidth at cloud services is not the solution. They have recognized the need for a new cloud WAN architecture, and so -- finally -- the networking team is being pulled into the loop.

The Forrester survey asked enterprises what they are doing now to support their cloud strategies. The most common answer was upgrading the network (47%). At the same time, 33% of respondents said they were evaluating their WAN services. The most common investments enterprises have made since they began using cloud services were adding more WAN bandwidth or links (47%) and new security services (46%). Only 22% of organizations said they didn't change anything to support the cloud.

"This tells me we need to bring their networks into the cloud era," said Stephen Collen, vice president of enterprise marketing for Sunnyvale, Calif.-based Juniper. "The cloud's benefits are only going to be realized if cloud and network strategies are developed in parallel."

Cloud WAN architecture: Direct access to services from anywhere

"When it comes to cloud, it's not about going out and buying a new router with more bandwidth," Kindness said. "The whole architecture has changed."

Whether they rely on an old hub-and-spoke WAN architecture or a more modern Multiprotocol Label Switching mesh, many enterprises still route Web traffic -- including traffic related to cloud services -- through data centers. Yet this tromboning of traffic imposes too much overhead on cloud services. Sales reps at a branch office 1,000 miles from a company's data center do not want to deal with latency imposed by a network architecture that funnels SalesForce.com traffic through that distant data center.

Distributed enterprises need a cloud WAN architecture that gives users direct- access cloud resources. Direct Internet access will force many IT departments to invest in new infrastructure at remote offices.

"You're starting to see dual or triple types of links at each branch office," Kindness said. "You have to have a mesh since you're not sending everything back to one location. You have to have Layer 4-7 services and security [decentralized]. Firewalls need to be everywhere. Even global load balancers are needed because you want to connect users to the closest resources. People who are using SaaS and PaaS [Platform as a Service] need the experience of connecting [to the cloud] to change. [The location of data] has to change. The architecture has to change."

Not only do enterprises need to change the way they architect the WAN in light of the cloud, they must also optimize the network differently. WAN optimization vendors traditionally focused on two key areas: traffic between data centers and traffic from data centers to the branch. As wide area networking evolves to support mobility and the cloud, these vendors are refocusing on user experience, whether that user is at corporate headquarters, a branch office, a home office or on the road with a tablet.

Stoneham, Mass.-based TRAC Research has found that the quality of end-user experience has become the new leading issue for WAN management. TRAC's new report, the WAN Management Spectrum, found that 46% of more than 400 surveyed enterprises identified quality of end-user experience to be the top performance indicator for the WAN, more than network throughput, data backup speeds and application availability combined. Bojan Simic, principal analyst and founder of TRAC, said end-user experience used to be the least important WAN performance indicator, but it has surged over the last 18 months.

"More traffic is being moved to the public Internet and more applications are becoming Web-based. And if you look at the cloud piece, you see that applications aren't necessarily cloud-based, but more and more apps are relying on cloud components within the application, like social media ads," Simic said. "All these things come together within the browser."

"CIOs have to do a lot of things differently to compete and to save money," said Dave White, president for the Americas region at Paris-based WAN performance vendor Ipanema Technologies. "Because cloud applications and the Internet are seeing wider usage, it's providing tremendous ROI [return on investment]. But they have to manage it."

White said enterprises have been investing in more network resources, but users still encounter application problems. 

Enterprises need to move away from the idea that all they need to do is install bigger network pipes and optimize the traffic in the pipes they already have. Instead, they have to manage the applications on the network more closely. Many vendors have responded by expanding their expertise and combining optimization and acceleration with visibility and control. But they also need to think about how the cloud changes network and application architecture.

"We think of applications today as an executable sitting on a virtual machine," said Forrester's Kindness. "They may talk about two- or three-tiered applications, too, but when you move to the cloud, developers change the way they develop applications. When you move to Amazon Web Services, it's your responsibility to create an application that can move around when a server goes down. That application executable is being broken up into multiple files on multiple servers, so if one goes down, another can come up and it can keep on going. Think about the way those applications go back and forth now. It changes the way networking is done, whether on the LAN or across the WAN. You have more traffic, but it will be smaller and more dispersed."

Networking teams will have to architect, optimize and manage their networks to accommodate these new cloud applications. They will also need to talk to the application teams much more than they ever did before, Kindness said.

"Networking teams can't just optimize it," he said. "This is going to change the WAN."   

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