Cloud IT brings a silver lining to SD-WAN

Cloud IT brings a silver lining to SD-WAN

09 March 2021 | Alan Burkitt-Gray


The biggest factor in the growth of software-defined wide area networks is the growth of cloud services, says Orange’s Franck Morales. But security, performance and flexibility are key, he tells Alan Burkitt-Gray

As enterprises move their IT to the cloud, they are moving their networks to SD-WANs, says Franck Morales of Orange Business Services (OBS).

“Connectivity is at the heart of the company,” he says.

The division works through three separate channels — very large accounts; a business-to-business channel for small and medium enterprises, right up to very large accounts; and, over the past few years, international services as well.

But SD-WAN has made the biggest change in the business, he says. “The evolution of IT for business has been to move it to the cloud. It’s become a virtual machine. That is the driver for SD-WAN — it going to the cloud — and we have seen that impacting what we deliver to our customers.”

Previously, he notes, there was a hybrid solution using internet connections in addition to MPLS. “Since 2015 to 2017 we have seen first the acceleration of this transformation to the cloud.”

Now critical applications are hosted on Amazon Web Services (AWS), Microsoft’s Azure, and so on.

“And then,” says Morales, who is VP of connectivity services, “we have seen an exploding number of start-ups in the SD-WAN field, taking it further. So over 2015, 16 and 17, we have seen the beginning of SD-WAN.”

He mentions Siemens, one of OBS’s big corporate customers. It was transforming its IT, moving services onto the cloud, and decided that SD-WAN would provide the new network connections. “This company previously was 100% MPLS, with 1,500 sites across many cities,” he says. “They said: ‘Let’s work together to make the new network happen.’ It would be based on the internet.”

In December 2020, OBS said it had successfully migrated 80% of Siemens’s global sites to the network as part of a large-scale digital transformation programme. Since then, progress has continued to be good: “We’re not very far off 90% now,” says Morales. “We’ll be 100% by April.”

Siemens needed “a reliable and flexible communication network that is a critical business enabler and can evolve with our growing business”, Frederik Janssen, the company’s VP of IT strategy and governance said.

Siemens put SD-WAN at the heart of its Siemens Digitalisation Network (SDN), which is designed to strengthen its IT infrastructure and increase network performance across the organisation.

But “security is a very specific topic”, warns Morales. “You can try to discuss features with the technology and the network guys. But it’s very hard to have the same discussions with the security guy. You cannot escape the security policy of the chief information security officer.”

The other topic that arises whenever anyone is considering SD-WAN is quality of service, he continues. “You have to ensure you will maintain quality of service — that’s the clear demand.”

So, since 2017, work has been going on to ensure customer expectations can be met. “We want customers to test their own use cases in our labs,” says Morales. “We are trying out their own use cases.”

Morales has been with the Orange group for more than two decades, since it was France Télécom. Early in the century, it bought a UK mobile operator called Orange, and then adopted the brand for the whole group. “I spent 12 years in Orange France working in its mobile wireless broadband business,” he says. He then moved to its division working with mobile virtual network operators (MVNOs).

He recalls: “And finally I moved to OBS, to bring my knowledge of mobile activities. At the time it was a competitive landscape, and I wanted to be in charge of profit and loss.” When he joined OBS in 2013, Morales says, “I was not expecting the revolution that would come.

But I had the opportunity to be there right at the start of it all.”

That meant that, more than he expected, his mobile knowledge was vital: wireless broadband can be an invaluable form of connectivity for SD-WAN. Morales holds up his Apple iPhone: “There are a lot of things inside this. This is the era we are living in.” As well as the smartphone, there is intelligence in the network “that you can provide to the end customer”.

Is he an engineer by background? No, he smiles, “but I have spent a lot of time with engineers.”

OBS can deploy in 220 countries, he notes, mentioning Sony, for which the group has built an SD-WAN network covering locations in 50 of them.

“First of all, SD-WAN is a customer project. We are not pushing a solution,” says Morales. “We have something that’s quite robust, but flexible enough to adapt to each customer. Or, if you need something new, then let’s develop it.”

There are three key features that customers want to ensure, he says: security, performance and flexibility. “They know about the flexibility of the cloud and they want that,” he smiles.

Sony and OBS announced that project in 2019, as a plan to transform Sony’s global network to drive business efficiency. Flexible SD-WAN is used to integrate Sony’s film and electronics business units within a single, worldwide network. And the deal paved the way for improved agility, transparency and security across its global business.

Thanks to the deal, Orange is now Sony’s principal global provider, delivering a fully automated, intelligent network for all global business units over time. The SD-WAN future-proof platform enables Sony to share IT talent and have complete end-to-end visibility for improved global service agility.

Sony CIO Makoto Toyoda said when the deal was announced: “Orange innovation, integration capabilities and international network are the catalysts that will allow us for the first time to bring our regional operating companies under one umbrella.”

He added: “Only Orange could deliver a platform with the scale and scope to cover all the moving pieces of our international business. It’s a transformative move on our part that opens the way for us to embrace new forms of IT innovation that will push the company forward.”

Morales explains: “This was a big transformation.” Sony used different service providers across the world but now, thanks to the SD-WAN deal, OBS is the service provider. “We managed the transformation by changing the underlay. We transformed Sony to our own service. We replaced the carriers with Orange.”

So, why move to SD-WAN in the first place?

“The flexibility is the big factor”, says Morales. As IT moves to the cloud, a big customer might want to use a mixture of, say, Microsoft Azure and AWS. “They need a network with the agility to do this. It’s a progressive transformation. You don’t have to do it all in one night.” You don’t have to define everything 100% at the start: it’s a progressive transformation, he adds.

“And then, at the start of 2020, Covid-19 started to roll across the world.” Companies needed to transform their business with digitisation. How? They didn’t always know at the start; often they still don’t. Flexibility is essential.

“Take a retail chain,” says Morales. The owner might want to connect 50 sites across Asia to the central IT system using the internet. “With an MPLS network it can take weeks or months to connect a site.”

Mergers and acquisitions in the era of Covid-19 have been a big driver, he notes, as companies have changed their needs rapidly, wanting to add some sites or remove others, or merge networks.

With SD-WAN it is possible to use different technologies, even 4G wireless, to connect to the cloud. “Now it’s clear, it is the transport layer for digital transformation.”

Now, he adds, there are more companies asking themselves whether it is possible to move all of their IT to the cloud. “What do they need in addition? SD-WAN, it is clear.” Is there anything that works as well? “I think no,” he replies.

Technology for SD-WAN is being standardised, says Morales, who for the past two years has been a board member of MEF, the former Metro Ethernet Forum. “There are about 50 vendors, but if you look at the global sales there are six or seven that are really there, credible, reliable vendors.” OBS uses “mainly Cisco and Fortinet”, he adds. “We use other vendors from time to time for some customers, if it’s a co-managed solution.”

And where does that leave MPLS, the routing technology that has been at the heart of enterprise networks for so long? Still there, and still growing, smiles Morales.

“We are seeing MPLS traffic increase in our backbone.” It’s not increasing by double-digit percentages, as internet traffic is, “and we still think MPLS will be there for a long time”. There are some places where you need MPLS, but SD-WAN gives you the flexibility of, for example, fibre or 4G connections.