Managing branch offices and the complex relationship that exists there among applications, networking, and management systems is becoming a bigger challenge every day for networking professionals. New services for branch locations are emerging in the form of managed end-to-end services and SaaS software tools based on application assurance.
One of the axioms of enterprise communications is that the total cost of a WAN service is about evenly divided between the recurring cost of the service and the cost of managing the service using internal personnel. Like most of the "accepted truths" of technology, it's rarely true at all, but what is true is that companies are looking hard for savings in communications costs. That's particularly true where the company has a large number of widely distributed branch offices.
Branch networking has always been problematic, for three reasons:
- Branch locations today typically rely on their communications link to operate, and so any problems in the connection are critical for all the customers or partners the branch office serves.
- Branches rarely have on-site technical support, and so any troubleshooting and assistance has to be provided remotely.
- Branches may be in different time zones or even different countries, making it expensive and difficult to support them from the company's headquarters.
Today, enterprises are finding that another issue with branch management may be emerging: the complex relationship among applications, networking, and management systems. Addressing this relationship is a primary driver of change in managed services for branch locations.
Branch offices really need application assurance rather than network assurance, because the ability of the office to function depends on its access to central application and data resources and not just on a network connection. The traditional "managed services" approach will provide an enterprise with a way of dealing with the complexities of network troubleshooting and problem resolution but not with the problem of the applications that run over the network. In fact, for many companies, it's difficult at first to tell whether a problem is with the network or an application.
Service providers that offer managed services have known for years that many customer calls for support are created by problems that are outside the network completely, or outside the WAN service the provider is managing. This has led providers to offer managed LAN services, and enterprises are beginning to accept these services as smart choices for branch office locations, particularly in widely distributed enterprises. In some markets, especially the EU and emerging economies, managed branch communications services are more likely than not to include both LAN and WAN connections. Some call this "end-to-end" management.
Another option that is just beginning to gain support in the branch management area addresses the management tool problem directly. Software providers are offering management tools through a Software as a Service (SaaS) model and not just through software licensing and customer hosting of the tools. BMC, CA, HP, IBM, Oracle, and SAP are all providing or actively considering management SaaS offerings. The benefit to the enterprise is that this may provide access to tools that would otherwise be difficult to cost-justify when both software and hosting costs are considered.
The ultimate solution, from a managed service perspective, is to outsource the entire branch application assurance task. This can sometimes be done through the use of SaaS tools to support branch operations. Where enterprise-owned applications are required at the branch, application and network outsourcing would normally require either third-party hosting of the applications (possibly via cloud computing) or an outsource management contract where a third-party provider assumes management of an enterprise's own IT structure, in whole or in part. Some of these deals are being done today, but they're still relatively rare.
Some types of services are more likely than others to generate branch support problems, and for these it would be wise to consider a managed service approach. VPN services are reported to have a support incident rate many times that of leased-line or frame relay services, and the service-level agreements are typically less stringent. For this type of service, a managed service bundle may make sense because it creates an incentive for the provider to control the number of service outages.
Increasing support costs, scarcity of skilled workers for support roles, and declining base costs for communications services overall are making managed branch services increasingly attractive, and enterprises should consider the full range of options, including new and seemingly provocative choices like SaaS management tools, when planning their branch network support strategies.
About the author: Tom Nolle is president of CIMI Corporation, a strategic consulting firm specializing in telecommunications and data communications since 1982. He is a member of the IEEE, ACM, Telemanagement Forum, and the IPsphere Forum, and he is the publisher of Netwatcher, a journal in advanced telecommunications strategy issues. Tom is actively involved in LAN, MAN and WAN issues for both enterprises and service providers and also provides technical consultation to equipment vendors on standards, markets and emerging technologies.