Moving Communications Into the Cloud

To date, much of the interest in shifting IT resources to “the cloud” has centered on the computing aspect — the servers, their MHz of CPU performance, gigabytes of memory and the flexibility of the infrastructure, platform or software. IaaS, PaaS and SaaS providers focus on their physical servers, operating systems and software along with the management of those resources. But cloud computing has important implications for the cost of corporate networks, too, allowing functions to be moved away from expensive on-premises equipment and into the cloud. We expect to see this migration start at the branch and SOHO office, where the cost of traditional networking equipment is often spread over a small number of users, making cloud-based services particularly attractive.

For enterprise communications, cloud computing is simply the notion that the IT service of interest is “out there” — we don’t necessarily care where it lives or how it works, as long as it works. The widespread ubiquity of the Internet, and specifically high-speed Internet, is the single factor that makes cloud computing possible. Turning our attention to the enterprise network and the services provided by that network, we can leverage the cloud to reduce cost and complexity in the branch office.

These changes will not happen overnight. Waves of IT technology take years, and the cloud computing wave is just beginning. But it already has solid momentum, so VARs should be preparing the necessary adjustments to their business models. Services that can be economically moved to the cloud are already shifting, and more will follow as part of a migration to a “branch in the cloud.” Services like content security that need to be delivered to dispersed enterprise workforces and branch offices are best served with cloud services.

There are three macro trends in enterprise communications today:

  1. Operations are distributing further and further. We now talk about the “distributed enterprise network.” Rather than large headquarters buildings, we increasingly find a distributed workforce with smaller branch offices and teleworkers doing work from home offices.
  2. There is an increasing variety and number of devices needed to access the enterprise network – from iPhones to printers to voice over IP handsets.
  3. Enterprise IT assets and applications are collapsing into a small number of data centers. Often these data centers are not located in the same building as employees – instead they are sitting in purpose-built locations.

Taken together, these trends mean that every employee in the company will need access to the cloud, wherever they go, at any time, from any device they choose to use. Traditional IT communications infrastructure was not designed to address this situation.

Traditional IT was built around the idea of an on-premises enterprise data center that hosted all applications. The majority of employees in a company were located at a headquarters site with LAN access to the data center, protected from the outside world by a firewall. Other locations were linked to the network using private WAN circuits, inside the firewall boundary. Workers not located at a corporate facility were “remote” and were forced to use VPN clients – which often provided a subpar experience. The entire system was very closed, with well-defined entry points that allowed security control points to be implemented.

As enterprises become more distributed, IT managers and their VARs can no longer build out private network infrastructure everywhere. There is an alternative architecture, which centralizes complexity into a single control point, and places low-cost access devices wherever an enterprise network presence is required. These access devices support any user device, wired or wireless, so that laptops, desktop computers, voice handsets, printers, or even consumer-type Wi-Fi devices can access the enterprise network.

Cloud Services Cut Cost, Complexity

Leveraging cloud services is the key to keeping the access devices low-cost and simple. Consider three such services: security, content delivery, and unified communications (UC).

Security. Security services such as antivirus or content filtering typically require a full-featured on-premises router with large amounts of memory. Cloud computing allows security for all Web-based applications to move into the cloud, freeing IT administrators from the burden of buying, installing, configuring, and managing hundreds of routers or security appliances.

Content. As users move away from headquarters or from the data center, bandwidth and round-trip network delays become an increasing problem. Traditional WAN optimization and compression solutions cannot help here, as they have been designed for point-to-point connections between relatively large offices, and require on-premises equipment in the branch, or a special software client on every device. Again, cloud-based services can help us. This type of service, the Content Delivery Network (CDN), has existed for years and forms the backbone of how we get everything from videos on YouTube to operating system updates from Microsoft. Communications incorporating cloud computing services allow enterprises to leverage these CDNs securely, by encrypting data being sent to the CDN and then decrypting it on the other side when a user downloads it. This turns a CDN into a giant global cache for enterprise data – speeding up access for users while cutting down on WAN bandwidth usage.

UC. Likewise, voice services need not be provided by a PBX or key system, or even a VoIP call server at every office – particularly when an office might consist of a single employee working from home. New urgent communications architectures make extensive use of the Session Initiation Protocol (SIP), and can incorporate remote or cloud-hosted voice servers. A branch or SOHO worker can be served by a cloud voice service or a remote corporate PBX, but with calls routed by the corporate server if required. This allows enterprises to seamlessly extend voice services to all their remote and branch locations without the burden of managing servers at each site.

Enterprises that stand to benefit the most from this wave of cloud services are large companies with many small locations. Examples include retail stores, gas stations, restaurant chains, banks, tax preparers, health care networks, and so on. In fact, the smaller the remote locations are, the more they benefit from services in the cloud – it simply isn’t cost-effective to put enterprise infrastructure in a sales person’s home office or in a retail storefront with only a few employees. These locations need only a connection to the cloud and a lightweight on-premises device to distribute WLAN and Ethernet connections, and perform 802.1X authentication. They can be served by security, content delivery and voice services in the cloud, or extended from the corporate or hosted data center.

Cloud Services Means Changes for the Channel

This enterprise networking architecture, built around new cloud services, implies changes for VARs and integrators. For all but the largest corporate sites, there will be less emphasis on routers, firewalls and other on-premises equipment, but a much stronger requirement for integration of the various elements of a solution. We can already see a number of these needs emerging.

As more services become “remote,” the quality and reliability and bandwidth of the connection to the cloud become of paramount importance. Expertise in Internet access, encompassing the physical connection, estimating bandwidth requirements and providing the appropriate level of reliability, diversity and survivability will be critical skills. For example, we already see a rise in the use of cellular data service as a redundancy option for small offices; although carriers do not provide guarantees or SLAs, the services offer high availability, true diversity and low cost. The integrator will have an opportunity to step in and to resell and manage such services.

Cloud computing will accelerate the move to VoIP and the need for VoIP expertise. Wherever small offices still maintain older PBX or key equipment, a comprehensive cloud computing project should look to move that voice traffic onto the Internet connection, and the call control into the cloud or to a central site. This has implications for QoS on the last mile and through the cloud, but it also presents the opportunity for a full VoIP/UC migration project. The end result will be a simpler network, but there are many considerations for voice service redundancy and survivability, SIP trunking and cloud voice services, the dial plan, local trunking and E911 calling that will provide solid consulting opportunities for integrators.

Consider two other areas where cloud-based services will simplify remote office communications. Web filtering and related security services (delivered from within the cloud by service providers) remove the requirement for on-premises branch office equipment to perform these functions, while avoiding the need to backhaul traffic to a corporate site for centralized content screening. Meanwhile, cloud-based CDN services prevent duplicate transmissions of corporate files, caching content at the edge of the cloud while maintaining privacy through full encryption. These services are already available but must be coordinated to ensure overall system performance – another opportunity for the integrator.

As cloud computing reaches the branch and SOHO offices, bringing simpler on-premises architectures but more requirements for service coordination, there will be pressure for corporate IT groups to pull back from these areas; they can be more efficiently run by integration specialists and do not represent core corporate competence. Increasingly, VARs can look to their vendors to offer network management as a white-label service, managing distributed wired and wireless networks from the cloud, with options to private-label customer-facing screens and reports. This will become a key tool enabling integrators to manage branch office networks on behalf of enterprise clients.

With a network oriented to take advantage of cloud computing, integrators may move less equipment, but the new sophisticated cloud services, and the increased importance (and bandwidth) of the connection to the cloud will provide alternative high-value products for the integrator to sell and service. Meanwhile the distributed enterprise will benefit from anywhere-anytime access, especially for their mobile workforce.

Peter Thornycroft is a technology analyst at Aruba Networks Inc. with primary interests in wireless technology, voice over WLAN and e-FMC solutions. He has experience with a variety of wireless, carrier and voice technologies. Prior to Aruba, Thornycroft held product management and technical marketing positions with Cisco Systems, StrataCom and Northern Telecom. He holds a master’s degree in electrical sciences from Cambridge University and a master’s degree in business administration from Santa Clara University.

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