Many enterprise IT departments are finding themselves in a bit of a pickle. Should they take on the substantial burden of managing a growing number of access network types, which are often provided by different vendors? Or should they instead reduce the number of technologies they use to ease manageability, improve security, and reduce cost?
Neither option is ideal. The second one—winnowing down networks—is undoubtedly simpler. But it can deliver suboptimal results if the characteristics of the selected network(s) don’t match the requirements of all use cases to be supported.
In a perfect world, enterprises would be intentional in their network design, pairing each use case to the most appropriate network for the job. While this approach has traditionally been complex and often resource-prohibitive for many organizations, the emergence of multi-access network-as-a-service (NaaS) is now making it a practical option.
Multi-access NaaS is a subscription-based platform that bundles network hardware, software, expertise, management, and SLAs into a single, pay-as-you-go service. As a unified cloud delivery model, it simplifies network operations for businesses.
Pick a Network, Any Network
As applications grow more diverse, each with different throughput and latency requirements, IT departments are reluctant to compromise the performance or reliability of any of them for the sake of simplicity. Yet each of the following networks is optimal for certain situations, depending on their respective speed, transmission range, cost, and other requirements.
- Wi-Fi. Pervasive Wi-Fi networks are well-suited to local-area fixed and mobile use cases that require high speeds at an economical price point. Wi-Fi best serves applications that can tolerate some latency, because it operates in unlicensed spectrum where contention for available bandwidth can cause reliability and throughput to vary.
- 4G/5G private or public cellular. 4G/5G networks support ultra-reliable mobility and low-latency applications, such as industrial IoT and robotics, and roaming use cases, including mobile user access. They can also be used as a fixed wireless network replacement for terrestrial last-mile broadband networks. Private cellular deployments allow the enterprise to retain full control over its network data, security, and operations.
- Ethernet. Wired Ethernet technology, which has endured for 50 years, delivers the ultimate in reliability and throughput. First and foremost a local-area networking technology, it best accommodates stationary use cases that require maximum availability and speed. It delivers per-device, dedicated bandwidth at speeds up to 400 Gbps. As a user access technology, its use is declining as employees and customers become increasingly mobile in their activities. However, it excels in fixed use cases, such as machine-to-machine network communications.
- IoT networks. IoT involves machine-to-machine communications and can make use of a mix of any of the above, as well as Bluetooth, Zigbee, Thread, and other local- and personal-area networks. Which technology is deployed for each IoT location depends on the size of the site, the IT resources and equipment there, site accessibility, and the nature and speed requirements of the IoT application.
Tackling Complexity with Unification
Network hardware from different manufacturers and a scarcity of human resources with expertise in multiple network technologies have made it difficult and expensive to meet the diverse access needs of different users, devices, and applications. The job of planning, designing, managing, and troubleshooting networks is starting to surpass what most traditional IT teams can scale to handle. Moreover, the upsurge in remote workers and distance learners, increasingly dynamic network traffic patterns, and high experience expectations are contributors to creating unprecedented network complexity.
A recent survey of more than 400 U.S. enterprises conducted by ZK Research, for example, showed that 75% use between two and five different management systems to run their Ethernet, Wi-Fi, and private 4G/5G cellular networks. This type of siloed operations for management, security, and policy can quickly lead to loss of data and management visibility, downtime, and cost. Surveyed enterprises, for example, said 17% of their network operations time and 19% of their budgets are wasted running separate access networks.
However, enterprises can align each use case to the network best able to support it while sidestepping complexity, cost, and talent obstacles through the use of converged multi-access NaaS. A large majority of enterprises recently surveyed by ZK Research (88%) agreed that converging their many access networks would be beneficial. NaaS also emerged as the top consumption model for multi-access network convergence with 79% of surveyed enterprises choosing this approach.
Multi-access NaaS is able to deliver the subscription-based consumption model benefits of cloud computing plus:
- Diverse network expertise across Wi-Fi, cellular, Ethernet, and other network types.
- Strong, per-workload SLAs—something not typically offered by in-house network support staff, particularly when wireless networks are involved. RF expertise tends to be scarce, and those that have it are usually schooled in one type of wireless technology or another—such as Wi-Fi or cellular, but not both.
- A simplified managed/outsourcing approach to procuring and managing networking equipment and software.
The majority of enterprises in the ZK Research study also said that the top business benefit of a multi-access converged network would be unified data security and privacy, which ranked as the number one business challenge among respondents.
What to Look for in a Multi-access NaaS
In the ZK Research study, network performance was the most important consideration when selecting a multi-access NaaS vendor (54%), followed closely by cost (52%).
“With a converged multi-access network, enterprises are looking for concrete improvements in security, network performance, and cost,” said Zeus Kerravala, principal analyst at ZK Research and author of the study. “We see the ability to quickly regain 20% or more of their budget and time. For many enterprises, that could mean millions of dollars toward the bottom line.”
Other important components to consider include the following:
- Availability of SLAs for your unique connectivity, bandwidth, latency, and security requirements on a per-network and, possibly, per-use-case basis. Multi-access NaaS with advanced AI-driven capabilities can help ensure that network metric requirements are consistently met.
- Ability to deploy common security and roaming policies across all access networks.
- Security services that allow each access network to run properly, such as user and device authentication, VLAN allocation, and a unified policy framework that includes DNS, DHCP, and firewall services.
- Monitoring, maintenance, and management services. With NaaS, networks can be either partially managed or fully managed, so enterprises don’t have to worry about provisioning, patching, upgrades, or other maintenance tasks.
- A single, unified dashboard for visibility into all your access networks to determine network health and status of compliance with the company’s key performance indicators (KPIs).
Architected for Agility
Like other cloud services, converged multi-access NaaS offers cost-saving and time-to-market benefits. In addition, by delivering expertise and automation—particularly in the wireless realm, where talent is often limited—it delivers a simpler way to purchase networking, allowing enterprises to embrace multiple access methods in their comprehensive networking strategies.
All access networks can be cohesively managed for SLA adherence and optimized for per-user, per-device, and per-application experiences. In this way, multi-access NaaS helps ensure that networks are architected intentionally to support growing and dynamic environments and to align with business goals in the digital era.
Tim Dyer is Vice President of Market Development at CommScope, in the company’s Networking, Intelligent Cellular and Security solutions business segment.