The Full Potential of Intelligent WAN: Reduce Complexity With Managed Services

January 25, 2017 - 1 Comment

Intelligent WAN and the Branch Problem

Most enterprises struggle with their IT strategies when it comes to branch offices.  At the core of this issue is the age-old problem of cost versus benefit (and also factoring in the ultimate quality of service at each price point).  In a time when IT departments and business units are having to cut expenditures to affect positively the corporate bottom line, the crosshairs are always squarely on top of what appears to be excessive IT expenses.  For Branch offices, the decision is a very critical one that has a direct bearing on productivity at the core business level.

Designing and implementing Branch connectivity that supports transformative new digital technologies, including collaborative video, while providing enough bandwidth to ensure quality of service is very costly indeed.  Service providers are happy to provide dedicated MPLS circuits from the home office or Branch facilities to headquarters, data centers or public clouds, but this traditional solution drives up IT costs considerably, especially when bandwidth consumption is always on an upward trajectory.  However, today the Branch has other lower-cost transport mechanisms available, if only the right technical solution enabled such traffic offload automatically based on transport quality.  The potential to implement a transport-independent Branch strategy to augment traditional WAN connectivity is exactly what Cisco’s Intelligent WAN (IWAN) promises to yield.  Properly deployed and maintained, IWAN is transformative.  Easily said, but not so easily done.blogcallout1

The Market Demand for Transport Offload

Digital transformation is not optional for most enterprises in 2017.  Regardless of the market—retail, financial services, education, manufacturing, just to name a few—digital technologies that power collaborative work and instant access to valuable data are often the sole competitive edge.  Carrying out the core business more collaboratively and efficiently is what the digital transformation has to offer, and no executive can overlook that potential leverage.  In fact, the vast majority of enterprises have a goal to achieve a full digital transformation before this decade is out.

When you combine the needs for collaborative and mobile technologies at the Branch with the growing push toward multiple-device knowledge workers, you quickly realize that bandwidth and quality of service will make or break any enterprise’s digital transformation.  Add to that the fact that quality of service is not just something that the enterprise’s workers experience—many Branch operations facilitate end-customer access to digital technologies.  Any negative effect on quality of service directly impacts the end customer’s perception of the enterprise.  This complex equation quickly gets reduced back to the same problem:  increase costs dramatically, or find another lower-cost solution that is cheaper to maintain in the long run.


What IWAN Really Is

Cisco’s IWAN solution is the answer to this problem at the Branch.  Through powerful software capabilities working in tandem with Cisco edge products, IWAN enables for the offloading of less-critical enterprise traffic onto cheaper but still reliable transport mechanisms, such as Internet or LTE links.  IWAN can still ensure that critical traffic traverses MPLS circuit connectivity, but the solution allows for scaling back dependence solely on Branch circuits and providing a much lower cost transport option either for selective traffic or for failover situations.  The main point here is that IWAN provides a quality of service that rivals MPLS circuits—that magical five-nines of reliability—at a price point that drives down IT expenditures.

The only issue for an enterprise to consider is maintainability.  IWAN taps into sophisticated software-based capabilities to provide the traffic inspection, rerouting, and offloading onto lower-cost transport links.  The question really becomes, how much does an enterprise need to invest in ramping up IT staff to implement and maintain their IWAN deployment?  And how will the enterprise know if they are truly actualizing all the power that IWAN can offer, in essence seeing the highest possible return on investment?  With powerful technologies come complexities in deployment and operations, so the enterprise must focus on this aspect of the IWAN solution before making the final commitment to be all-in.


The Value-Add of Managed Services in IWAN Deployments

Fortunately, Cisco’s Cloud and Managed Services (CMS) group has the in-house expertise to help the enterprise protect their investment into IWAN.  CMS offers compelling capabilities to operate, maintain, and optimize IWAN deployments.  Our sole focus in CMS is to take care of all the complexities inherent in operating an optimal network environment so that the enterprise can focus on their own core business, free from the burden of finding and employing the right staff with the technical and procedural know-how to make the most of Cisco’s IWAN solution.

Our capabilities focus holistically on all the functional areas of the IWAN solution, from basic but vital Day 2 Operate activities through the entirety of solution visibility and service assurance.  Regardless of which part of IWAN you are talking about, CMS can tackle the ongoing day-to-day monitoring and troubleshooting to resolve incidents and keep IWAN up and running, can provide the views necessary to make proactive improvements to the IWAN deployment, and can provide the service assurance through policy and change management to respond to the changing needs of the enterprise and the Branch activities.blogcallout4

Things To Consider

The obvious message in this piece is that, while IWAN is poised to resolve a number of issues for the enterprise and its Branch strategy, certain other points need to be thought through and addressed.  In the larger context of the market, this software-defined WAN (SD-WAN) is the revolution every CIO has been anticipating—it has been at the epicenter of so many other technological transformations:  the evolution of the data center driven by the push toward the Cloud, digitalization and its bandwidth-hungry demands, the explosion in the amount of data transferred and stored (and Big Data), and of course network and data security.  All these transformations have preceded the maturation of SD-WAN and Cisco’s IWAN solution.  That’s a lot to think about for any CIO when considering the right course of action.

To make that thought process just a little easier, we have compiled a short list of some of the more important factors to consider from our perspective as managed service providers.  Keep in mind that this list is not all-inclusive, but if you can navigate these items with a sufficient level of confidence, then you are well on your way to a better Branch strategy using Cisco’s IWAN.

Does the delay in SD-WAN adoption mean anything?

The answer to this question really points to a Catch-22 situation.  The Enterprise needs disruptive new technologies like IWAN both to remain competitive as well as to reduce expenditures.  However, to implement new, disruptive technologies costs more initially both from a fiscal and a manpower perspective.   In essence, implementing transformative and disruptive (in the positive sense of the word) technologies can be a potentially disruptive (pejorative sense) experience, often negating the desire to go there.  This situation, more than any other, creates the conservative mindset to wait until a technology goes mainstream—too often, at that point it’s too late to capitalize on the competitive edge it might afford.

But to be clear, this type of delay should no longer be a hindrance for the question of transport offload solutions such as SD-WAN.  Not only is IWAN a proven solution, but accompanied by CMS’s industry-leading managed services capabilities for IWAN this adoption curve can be radically shortened.  CMS can help bridge the gap and help seamlessly transform the enterprise to the SD-WAN model without the fear and anxiety of being on the bleeding edge of adoption.  Ongoing operations, incident and problem management, and proactive adjustments to the IWAN deployment become a matter of business as usual, not a daily catastrophe.

Cisco Managed Services can help bridge the gap and help seamlessly transform the business to SD-Wan and help you realize all the benefits of SDWAN without the fear and anxiety of living on the edge.

How can Managed Services really make an IWAN deployment more successful?

Taking on new technologies such as IWAN means that you will encounter potentially troublesome challenges.  Three major areas where CMS’s managed services capabilities can help include tools, complexity management, and security.  If you don’t manage these three areas well, then implementing an SD-WAN model for the Branch might cause additional headaches.

Because software is the major enabling factor in IWAN (and all SD-WAN solutions), accompanying tools are necessary for the different levels of monitoring, configuration, and optimization of the solution.  But there is a difference between using tools and extracting all the value possible from them.  Different domain managers enable the full value extraction from the accompanying toolset.  Also, SD-WAN is by its very nature a multi-tier technology, with different software logic at separate layers tackling very different tasks.  These layers need to work in concert, though, so the multi-tier aspect of IWAN is inherently complex.  Expert technologists who understand this complexity and know how to manage incidents and more serious problems effectively are absolutely necessary to successful IWAN operations.  Security, of course, is often the elephant in the room that everybody knows is there but does not want to recognize.  The security layer is critical to the SD-WAN model, and it takes security professionals with real know-how to maintain it, even though the security layer is in essence built into IWAN through DM-VPN implementation.  To summarize all these points:  moving from the old to the new, no matter what technology, can introduce complexity and can generally threaten to create a mess.  CMS’s managed services enables you to worry about your core business, not IWAN.

IWAN and bringing up a new Branch site

This piece has been emphasizing the competitive edge that quick deployment can lend to the enterprise.  Keep in mind that a well-deployed and maintained IWAN solution means that Branch sites can be brought up to full productivity much more quickly.  This is one of the often overlooked but real value-adds of moving to an SD-WAN model.

  1. The process of bringing up a new Branch site can be broken down into two main tasks:Circuit provisioning. A traditional site takes months for complete provisioning and cut-over to production.  This means lost time in reaping the benefits of a fully activated site.  With circuit transport modes such as 4G/LTE and Internet, which are becoming more reliable and faster over time, IWAN can cut the provisioning time by 60-70%.  And with no significant effect on the five-nines standard in the industry.
  2. Network Provisioning. Traditionally, this is a huge source of logistical delay in bringing up a Branch site.  In the past, you could expect frequent truck-rolls and site visits by different personnel to perform rack-and-stack activities, provision, and ultimately verify a network installation.  Automating the workflows, provisioning services remotely, service chaining, and remote verification speeds up the time-to-market.  Again, an active site is a productive site.

Cisco’s IWAN solution can surely reduce the time to market by 70+%.  That said, there are still many external forces that can affect this optimistic time-to-market scenario.  Cisco Managed Services excels at effectively and knowledgably managing those external forces.

Why is so much made about application and solution visibility?

The old adage is, “If it is not broken, then don’t touch it.”  We’ve all heard this and sometimes tried to follow it, assuming that if something that is working is left alone then it can continue to work unimpeded without being monitored or optimized.  Most of us know, though, that this case does not apply to complex and dynamic technologies such as IWAN.

Consider the good old reliable router or switch, the venerable piece of hardware with 10+ years of uptime with little or no human intervention.  The fact of the matter is, everything was good until catastrophe struck, all hell broke loose (meaning people could not get their work done), and countless hours of reactive problem-resolution ensued, followed by many more hours of hand wringing and apologies to upper management.  Truly gone are the days of any network technology running on its own (though that never really was the case).  In its place, a well-run solution must have complete transparency, with proper tools, analytics, and the accompanying human checks and balances to resolve problems, make course corrections to avert disaster or improve functionality, and report back to upper management and a host of other offices tasked with overseeing the bottom-line.

IWAN coupled with an appropriate level of managed services achieves this balance, providing 24/7 monitoring, proactive reporting, and complete visibility across the spectrum of the SD-WAN model.

Visit Cisco Managed Services to learn more about our capabilities.


Co-Authored by Trevor Morgan, CMS Offer Manager and Shelley Bhalla, Product Manager.


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  1. Great story and strong arguments for the digital transformation of an Enterprise through enabling IWAN with the help from Cisco Managed Services.
    Similar story line could apply to Service Provider providing IWAN Services to their end customers. SP can rely on Cisco Managed Services competencies to complement their existing SP offering (i.e VPN, circuits, 3/4G) and support end customers in their digital agenda for the branch.