Network orchestration: Breaking down the confusion
There is some confusion around orchestration because it has multiple definitions depending on the context in which it's used
By Anjali Amar
While it may sound cliched, the advancement in network speeds and technology coupled with the insatiable thirst for data is transforming every sector – from healthcare to telematics. It’s changing how we bank, how we interact with our favourite brands and how we consume services. Every business is being forced to adapt. That 70 per cent of global technology executives believe that networking capabilities underpin digital transformation initiatives won’t surprise anyone. Closer to home, a recent report by TechSci drives home this point, forecasting a 36 per cent growth of the Software Defined Network market in India.
One of the big benefits of deploying a SDN solution is that it shakes off the constraints of hardware-based networks in exchange for greater management flexibility, speed to market, and time to revenue. To capitalise on the benefits of SDN, however, organisations should seriously consider network orchestration as part of their strategy.
There is some confusion around orchestration because it has multiple definitions depending on the context in which it’s used. Network orchestration gives managers the ability to automate network service deployments and configurations, and then to monitor how those services perform. With orchestration, the root causes of performance issues can be addressed with the least amount of disruption to users and customers.
Network orchestration, therefore, is an integral component of digital transformation since the ultimate goal of the digitisation process is to boost operational efficiency and improve business outcomes – with processes that require minimal human intervention.
Is network orchestration necessary?
In implementing a software-defined environment, network orchestration is not a requirement. It is still possible to run SDN and virtualise functions through NFV (network function virtualisation) without orchestration. You can spin virtual servers up or down manually, going through all the motions these processes require.
But why would you want to? If the ultimate objective is to digitise and automate, orchestration provides a cleaner, faster path to that goal. It makes it quicker and easier to deploy the functionality you need, quickly introduce innovations to customers, and resolve problems without taking critical systems offline for hours or days.
Take the example of India’s CG Power, one of the world’s biggest power transmission and distribution equipment companies. The company deployed a SDWAN solution – an extension to its existing Multiprotocol Label Switching (MPLS) network. The entire migration, which took under three-weeks, has saved them 27 per cent in IT costs and helped them effectively utilise redundant network assets.
It all starts with planning and implementation. Traditionally, a company looking to deploy a new service or application would undergo a months-long process. You would provision the necessary hardware, wait for delivery, and then wait for technicians to roll in with the tools and experience needed to install, configure, and connect everything – sometimes having to spend hours on the phone with multiple vendors to configure components and connect services. This would require a series of truck rolls over days or weeks, driving up costs. With network orchestration, provisioning can get scaled back to mere days, especially in a hosted environment.
Once the appliance is on site, the real magic happens. Whether the box is meant to run security, application-aware routing, WAN optimisation, SDWAN, or a combination of services, when it arrives at a customer site the service is already configured. If the configuration involves components from multiple vendors, everything has already been tested for compatibility and performance.
Someone on site then plugs in the appliance to establish a remote connection with the provider. From there, all the required connections are made to the network, a managed services console, and even the provider’s billing systems. The service is up and running quickly, typically without the need for an expensive truck roll.
If you multiply the process by, for instance, 20 sites, the savings in time and resources can be significant. Rather than deploying technicians to each site, the appliance is shipped there to be configured remotely. Once connected, each box can automatically download the “golden image” of the service, install the software, configure it to the network, set policies, and get the box ready to send and accept traffic. Subsequently, updates, upgrades, and additions can be managed remotely and automatically, eliminating all the staff hours required to run these processes manually.
Though tightly linked with automation, orchestration goes a step further by providing the means to fine-tune service and network performance, helping in maintaining business continuity. For example, a retail mission-critical application such as POS (point of sale). If the application underperforms or malfunctions, through orchestration, it can be spun down and spun back up in a data centre or another site so service to the customer can continue with little interruption.
While the application is running from a different site, technicians troubleshoot the box at its normal location – this is akin to rerouting road traffic from the scene of an accident until emergency crews have time to clear it. Once the fix is complete, the service can return to its normal site and customers will be none the wiser. The same could happen with a web storefront or a different customer-facing service.
Orchestration yields multiple benefits. An obvious one is the redeployment of IT and network management staff to less-routine tasks. As organisations grow to rely more on automation and artificial intelligence (AI), some will want to reallocate staff to those areas for planning and programming.
Other benefits of network orchestration can include:
- Improved customer experience
- Enhanced network management through automation and fast remediation
- Accelerated time to market for services and innovations
- Operational improvements
Better budget management
Orchestration also plays a role in areas such as security, where processes can be automated and monitored, and DevOps, where multiple tasks can be automated and streamlined for faster development.
Don’t forget connectivity
As noted, network orchestration provides plenty of benefits to organisations deploying SDN as part of their digital transformation strategies. A critical component of the entire process, though, is something planners sometimes overlook – connectivity. If you don’t plan for bandwidth demand, it will come back to haunt you. Service performance is only as good as the connectivity allows, and orchestration cannot produce the desired results without sufficient bandwidth. With sufficient planning and execution, however, organisations can successfully implement their digital transformation strategies and become the kind of company others will want to emulate.
(The author is the Country Manager of Verizon Enterprise Solutions)
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