March - 2006 - issue > Cover Feature
Branch Networks on the Edges
Seenu Banda
Monday, November 17, 2008
The last few years have seen branch networks becoming an area of increasing focus for IT executives, driven by the need for corporations to stay closer to the customers in times of intense competition. The spread and affordability of broadband Internet connectivity has enabled companies to distribute the critical information stored in such critical applications as CRM, ERP and data repositories all the way out to branch office employees.

Additionally, other applications like VoIP and video conferencing are becoming common across enterprise and branch networks. Given the dependence on the Internet to deliver these applications and content, and its open nature, organizations the world over have had to invest in a variety of security and access devices like firewalls, VPN servers, routers, security appliances and switches to maintain the integrity of the IT infrastructure and to ensure that business processes are not interrupted.

The traditional approach to building the network edge has been to deploy a number of devices in a cascaded manner, with each device catering to one or two specialized functions. While it seemed to be a logical approach to invest in “best of breed” devices, the maintenance and management of the network often became a nightmare for IT administrators. Let us take a look at the typical network edge: This approach has a number of limitations that network professionals will easily identify with:

1. Manageability: Each device typically has its own operating environment and management console, necessitating a number of people with different skill sets to manage the network edge. Additionally, integrating these various discrete devices to talk to each other is in itself an extremely challenging task. Configuration of the devices is another pain point, with changes needing to be applied individually to each device in the string.
While some third party tools are available in the market that offer a view across multiple devices, they are usually reporting tools, and not full fledged management tools.

2. Reliability: Every device in the string is a potential point of failure, making the network unpredictable and unreliable. This problem only gets compounded in an organization with numerous branches.

3. Scalability: The “string of boxes” approach has its inherent limitations in terms of scalability. Scaling is often achieved through adding more devices, leading to more CAPEX, adding more people to manage the network and leading to an increase in OPEX. And of course, every additional device only increases the unreliability of the network.

In summary, the currently prevalent generation of networking equipment does not serve its purpose - they do not assure the corporation of a robust, reliable, scalable branch network, or of any ongoing investment protection.

So What's the Way Forward?
Clearly, the industry needs to rethink the fundamentals of branch network design. Best of breed boxes that serve a limited number of applications are not delivering the required business-level benefits to the enterprise. The branch network products of the future clearly need to achieve certain business objectives:
1. Reduce operating expense significantly by reducing the number of devices at the branch.

2. Provide comprehensive & centralized manageability, allowing IT management to minimize remote staff if desired.

3. Deliver the reliability and scalability that will enable the network to deliver real business benefits to the organization.

Some of the current networking equipment vendors have realized this, and have introduced devices that run multiple applications. However, these do not serve their purpose as the customer ends up with legacy devices that have far more applications than they were designed to handle, and thus compromises on crucial performance criteria such as throughput speeds and uptime. In fact, this approach only serves to reduce the number of devices at the network edge, but does not address the underlying business-level issues.

Enterprise customers thus need to look at the new generation of networking equipment called “Services Gateways”, or “Business Gateways”. Services Gateways are “designed from the start” to address the issues currently plaguing the network administrator and IT management, and to enable the corporation to build a highly available, resilient, scalable and manageable remote office network.

Services Gateways provide multiple services, but differ from the current generation of multi-service devices in critical aspects:
n Purpose-built for services: Services Gateways are designed and built ground up to handle a spectrum of services required at the network edge, such as security (IDS/ IPS, firewalls and antivirus), routing, switching, VPN and voice. In addition, Services Gateways deliver unprecedented investment protection by providing support for new applications as they are created.

Beyond delivering a range of services, Services Gateways make it easier to operate new services. Through such capabilities as hitless additions and upgrades, IT can fully leverage this branch platform to quickly bring new services into production with minimal business disruption.

1. True remote management that allows visibility into the platform and control even if the device itself is down, thus leading to tremendous savings in manpower and opportunity costs. This is achieved by separating the management plane from the data and control planes, making this class of product the next generation of networking equipment.

2. Scalability: Services Gateways can scale to add more applications without service disruptions, as well as scale individual application performance seamlessly.

Services Gateways can help create a robust branch network and protect corporations’ investments by scaling seamlessly to handle current and future demands. The branch network can now truly be seen as a tool to derive strategic business advantage.

Seenu Banda is the Founder, President and CEO of NetDevices.
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