In collaboration with Jon Heaton and Roel Bernaerts

As revealed in The SASE story, part I, the SASE model brings value to enterprise IT organizations looking to achieve connectivity and security resilience through a secure, efficient, hybrid architecture. In Part II, we’ll outline the journey we took to develop our Cisco SASE solution.

CloudPort: The precursor to SASE

Throughout the past decade, IT organizations have witnessed two significant trends: the migration of applications to the Cloud, followed by Hybrid Work. These trends caused IT leaders to think differently about how to better connect users to applications. Many — including Cisco IT — realized that networking and security problems can no longer be solved in isolation. To address this, Cisco IT embarked on a journey to build our own bespoke solution by combining different Cisco networking and security components, delivering SASE-like capabilities in an on-prem platform.

At a Cisco IT offsite in 2013, during a time when workloads were starting to migrate to the cloud, we drafted what is now the CloudPort vision on a hotel bar napkin. The plan was to deploy highly scalable networking and security hardware platforms in colocation facilities worldwide.

Initially, CloudPort was conceived in response to this Hybrid Cloud paradigm shift, providing us with the opportunity to strategically place our network edge directly with major ISPs and Cloud providers. Over time, we realized we could fuse security services directly into this architecture, which allowed us to bring together networking and security into a common platform. This was, effectively, a hardware- and co-lo-based precursor to current cloud-delivered SASE. The crux of this plan was that it allowed us to layer more and more services on top – offering similar capabilities (VPN, Firewall, Zero Trust Network Access, URL filtering, etc.) to what would become known as SASE.


Cisco CloudPort Image


The CloudPort solution was and is very effective – allowing us to securely interconnect the Cisco enterprise network with the outside world.  However, as technology evolved and business requirements changed, it started to pose some challenges:

  • Due to the layered nature of the solution, it became complex to build and operate
  • It required specialized skillsets, which became difficult to find in the industry
  • After years of iteration, CloudPort became an amalgamation of different technologies and solutions we had layered together ourselves, so it became difficult to quickly adjust to increasingly agile business needs

Taking into account these challenges, we decided that it was time for a different approach.

A modernized “SASE” Hub

As a stepping-stone between CloudPort and fully Cloud-delivered SASE, Cisco IT’s Customer Zero team developed a modernized solution, branded the “CZ SASE Hub.”  Since we have the in-house expertise, and we needed to use physical appliances to meet scale requirements, we decided to deploy our own solution. For customers, this new version provides a simple, easy-to-operate, Zero Trust-ready platform, and will later allow for easier migration to SASE.

The CZ SASE Hub is SD-WAN centric, leveraging both Meraki and Viptela. This allows us to efficiently bring connectivity and policy to a central, easy-to-manage place in the network. By extending micro (Cisco TrustSec) and macro segments (SDA & SD-WAN VPNs) into Cisco Secure Firewall, we can enforce identity-based policies supporting our Zero Trust for the Workplace initiatives (SDA, TrustSec/ISE). In addition, we significantly improved our observability (DNA-C/vManage Assurance, ThousandEyes, DNA Traffic Telemetry Appliance) to make sure the platform is healthy and delivers a great experience to our end users.


Cisco SASE Solution


This homegrown solution turned out to be much easier to deploy and operate, with a much smaller footprint. If we need to expand our footprint into different colocation facilities to meet new business demands, we will entertain using Cisco SD-WAN Cloud OnRamp for colocation or Secure Agile Exchange (SAE). These highly virtualized solutions offer the same capabilities with controller-based orchestration and integrations that offload a lot of the complexity.

Adopting Cloud delivered SASE

Although our do-it-yourself platform is doing mostly what we need it to do, it poses a few challenges. Building and operating a homegrown SASE-type solution remains complex and requires in-depth expertise of many different technologies.

To address these challenges, we look to move to a cloud-delivered SASE model. With this model we can outsource the complexity, allowing experts to build and operate the platform for us. We no longer have to deploy bigger-than-needed boxes to factor in potential future growth — we can now scale up and down when business needs change. Finally, SASE provides new security capabilities within a single offering, preventing us from having to deploy a multitude of standalone security tools. An added bonus? We believe SASE can result in cost optimizations.

Our aspiration is to migrate to Unified SASE for most of our network. These easy-to-order, easy-to-operate SASE solutions provide superb integrations among some of the best technologies (SD-WAN, Umbrella SIG, AnyConnect, ZTNA/Duo), all available through a unified services portal.

For the parts of our network where we don’t migrate to Unified SASE, we will adopt Disaggregated SASE. As a large enterprise customer, Cisco has complex use-cases that ask for a bit more flexibility. Disaggregated SASE is similar to Unified SASE in that it provides much better integrations between similar technologies, yet it allows for more customization to fit our specific needs. Disaggregated SASE deconstructs certain components of Unified SASE to allow for a more flexible, scaled deployment. For example, Cisco Secure Firewall Cloud Native (SFCN) allows a containerized deployment of Next-Generation Firewall in AWS. The customer can then combine this with custom deployments of SD-WAN, Umbrella, and Duo to create a distributed, scaled-out architecture to meet Enterprise needs.

Our ultimate aim is to drive a unified solution that is tenable for large-scale, complex environments like ours, and produce a reference solution that customers can easily replicate.

Over the past months, we have started replacing and supplementing on-prem CZ SASE Hub capabilities with cloud-delivered SASE. In Part III of the SASE Story, we’ll dive into details and lessons learned while using SASE to support a hybrid world.


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