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Software-driven network access ups enterprise agility

Network access to service provider systems is becoming software-based. Learn more about how software-defined access works and the flexibility inherent in software.

These days, everything is "software-defined," from networking to storage to WANs, just like everything was "internet-enabled"...

back in the late 1990s. Internet-enabled was an often-maligned term that many used to position old wine with new labels; the same is true for software-defined today. Software-defined, intent-driven, artificial intelligence and machine learning are some of the most overused words in technology today, often fodder for venture capital funding as much as attempts to describe the product.

Software-defined is self-explanatory, for the most part; instead of defining the function or capability of a product within the hardware, where it needs to be hardcoded and permanent, features can be defined within a software overlay. This strategy makes the parameters of the product or system more flexible, more malleable and, ultimately, more agile.

Software in networks: The next stage, access

The newest piece of software definition hitting my radar screen is software-driven network access. The access being described here is access to carrier or service provider systems, such as internet service providers, cable TV and internet providers, mobile carriers and the like. The idea behind software definition is reducing complexity, driving faster state changes, pushing more control out to the endpoints, reducing operational costs and increasing flexibility.

In the networking world, much of the provisioning of new network resources and services when deploying a server is still very manual. Common Language Infrastructure scripts, console commands and a series of trouble tickets -- plus weeks or months of time -- are required to bring up new networking services, despite being able to spin up a new virtual machine in minutes. Software-defined networking fixes that by automating and orchestrating much of that internally facing work through a software overlay versus changing hardware-level control. Software-driven network access extends that change capability all the way out to the end customer.

The only outlier to the software-driven process may come at the physical layer; everything else can be automated with software.

Access to these carrier or service provider networks becomes decoupled from the underlying systems and sits in an overlay that can be automated. There are multiple steps to automating new services provisioning, starting at the customer end and finishing at the physical system. Much of the work is hidden behind online tools today, giving the appearance of software definition, but that automation ends once the end customer clicks on the submit button. The rest of the typical chain requires manual intervention: the interpretation from an agent, logging the request in the system, handing off to engineering for execution and then sending verification back to the customer that the new service is operational. This is why tasks like simply upgrading the bandwidth of an MPLS circuit could take weeks or months.

With software-driven network access, all of the resources are virtualized and orchestrated in an overlay layer that sits on top of the physical equipment. The only outlier to the process may come at the physical layer; everything else can be automated with software.

How software-driven access works

In the software-driven network access world, the enterprise customer makes the request, and the orchestration layer takes over, programming the functionality across the whole chain in an automated fashion, testing and verifying the changes and then reporting everything back. This saves tremendous amounts of time and operational cost, enabling both companies and service providers to capitalize on short-term revenue opportunities.

Businesses aiding in hurricane rescue and relief efforts, for instance, did not have six months of warning about where they were going to need to have IT capabilities. In a software-driven network access world, they could make requests to their service providers through a self-service portal and get extra bandwidth or capability at the drop of a hat. When one considers all of the short-term, almost fleeting, opportunities missed because resources cannot be deployed in time, the idea of software-driven network access becomes even more valuable.

With the introduction of 5G networks, microservices and micro-slicing, it is clear that the ability to carve up resources in a far more discrete manner -- especially with relation to time -- can boost revenue. Carriers and service providers will need a better mechanism for automating these services. Software-driven network access is the gateway to capitalizing on those capabilities.

This was last published in May 2018

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