Next generation WANs

The corporate network is the critical artery of the modern enterprise, providing direct connection to locally hosted data while enabling information access and distribution over globe-spanning wide area networks (WANs).

But new pipe-hungry and data-intensive services that organisations are embracing – unified communications, remote desktop virtualisation, centralised services, real-time disaster recovery and several others – are emerging that put incredible strain on existing networks. Indeed, the benefits of many new applications and services will be unattainable without the provision of faster, more reliable connectivity.

For corporate networks, the enabling technologies are far from equal: fast-dating frame relay systems compete with expensive leased lines; public IP VPN connections sit alongside private alternatives, with both relying on Internet performance; while new technologies, notably VPLS (Virtual Private LAN Service), are emerging to tackle some of the key issues that frustrate users of legacy technologies and services.

Information Age’s survey on wide area networking, undertaken in partnership with next-generation network service provider Exponential-e, reveals high levels of confusion about the various carrier choices and a great deal of discontent, particularly over crippling bandwidth restrictions. In fact, two-thirds of respondents regard bandwidth restrictions as the most severe pain-point for their organisation’s WAN.

That situation has prompted plenty of work-arounds, says Adrian Hobbins, CTO of Exponential-e. IT directors are being forced to use costly ‘Band-Aid’ solutions to compensate for inadequate bandwidth, he observes, including local caching and the duplication of file and email servers.

And many IT leaders are having to keep next-generation applications “in the bottle” because of network constraints. “Desktop virtualisation, for example, is beginning to happen, but nobody is contemplating doing it with servers 50km away,” says Hobbins. “Most of the thinking has been that it only works if the server is local, because nobody’s network is capable of distributing it.”
Solutions such as leased lines are still painfully expensive, while running WANs over a public IP VPN was fine “until suddenly everyone realised the Internet is OK for home [use], but rubbish for business-quality services [at, say,] a 200-seat office.”

That is where VPLS comes in. “It makes bandwidth capacity cheap and freely available,” says Hobbins. Comparing traditional technologies with Ethernet-based VPLS “is like comparing a Reliant Robin with a 26-wheel juggernaut: you can now move 50,000 boxes when before you could only move four – but for roughly the same price.”

Raising the stakes even higher is the prediction that traditional carriers will fall even further behind as they continue to sell legacy access technology to “justify their original ‘hole-in-the-ground’ investment”, says Hobbins. “Up until quite recently, they were in public denial about [VPLS].” Companies such as Exponential-e who backed VPLS when it was “heresy” to do so, now feel vindicated after having challenged 2Mb legacy services with 10Mb VPLS. “Now we’re out there selling 100Mb and about to launch a 1,000Mb-based solution,” says Hobbins.

Traditional carriers are likely to eventually come round to the view that VPLS provides the ‘bang-for-buck’ that corporate clients are looking for. VPLS is scheduled for phase two of  BT’s 21CN next-generation network, for example.

In the meantime, there is still a steep learning curve for VPLS among potential customers. Indeed, two-thirds of the respondents to Information Age’s survey say that they have so far only gained limited knowledge of the technology.

But that won’t last for long: when discussions about VPLS begin, “customers’ eyes suddenly go a bit wider, and they [wonder] why they didn’t know about it six months ago when they spent £1 million pounds on that virtualisation project.” 

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