A Decisive Step into the World of the Virtual Enterprise

By Tom Nolle
August 4, 2020
One of the most important things we’ve learned in our long coronavirus lockdown is that new habits die just as hard as old ones do.  

Many businesses have spent three or four months working as a distributed collection of people rather than as a traditional facility-concentrated workforce, and have found the new model offers benefits.  Make no mistake, the work-from-home model isn’t going to disappear when the lockdowns end.  A major Wall Street survey of CIOs shows that companies are expecting around 40% of their employees to routinely work from home, even beyond 2021.

Our search for a technology framework on which to base distributed, virtual, enterprises have lasted decades, and there’s even a little-known academic discipline (Computer-Supported Cooperative Work or CSCW) to cover the space.  We’ve tried out a lot of video and whiteboard technologies and we’re still debating the results, but we seem to have forgotten the most fundamental requirement of all—distributed virtual workforces require absolutely pervasive and reliable connectivity.

From a network perspective, the virtual enterprise is a massive and disruptive shift.  In the past, we never really networked people, we networked places where people collected.  This paradigm makes no sense when those people aren’t collecting any longer.  Fixed lines to fixed facilities with fixed network collectivity just don’t work in our new post-lockdown age, or during any future lockdowns.  Users need something more flexible, something that builds an enterprise network over whatever connections are available to a site, or to a home.

Traditional enterprise network support doesn’t work either.  When we connected sites, we could expect to have on-site personnel to troubleshoot problems.  Enterprises can’t send a real tech to service a virtual network, and it’s clear that future connectivity will have to come from an ad hoc collection of available network options like the Internet.  The bigger the scope of the company, the more difficult the support problem becomes.

It’s a world that cries out for another decades-old concept, managed services, and CIMI Corporation’s Demand Model says that managed service opportunities will increase by over one thousand percent by the end of this decade.  But managed services have to be based on an architecture that’s agile, reliable, is easily supported through automated tools, and has built-in facilities to support upselling to raise benefits for users and revenues for operators.  Where is that architecture?  That’s the question that 128 Technology is now answering, with its new Flexible Service Edge.

The purpose of Flexible Service Edge is to create a managed service platform that builds from demarcation-point telemetry that’s fully session-aware, through managed router services, to full session-aware SD-WAN.  Each of the platform options is based on a universal CPE (uCPE) model, with all features and upgrades delivered through remote software upgrades.

The essential piece of any managed service architecture is a clear point of demarcation, where contractual service level guarantees meet with monitoring and management to support both parties in the SLA.  128T calls this the “L3 NID”.  SLA monitoring and “demarc” points aren’t new, but a new vision is required for the kind of agile connectivity service users now demand.  The L3 NID includes monitoring, but the monitoring is session-aware.

Session-aware monitoring means that it’s possible for an MSP to write an SLA for specific types of interaction, for specific roles, and even for specific users or applications.  No matter where the workers are, where the applications are, and how they’re connected, the L3 NID provides a demarcation point that allows detailed monitoring of all critical communications statistics.  Better yet, a full set of APIs provide a way to link the session-aware data to any network or application management system, and an MSP can even provide a portal for customer use, one for use by customer service reps, and one for experts in a network operations center (NOC).

A common set of session-aware data can now be the basis for all service inquiries, data collected according to the specifics of the SLA, and the specific connectivity priorities of the user.  It’s the classic “single pane of glass”, with the added benefit that there can be many views through the glass, views customized by the role of the viewer, but all based on the data collected at the session-aware demarcation point.

A strong SLA, fairly enforced, and quick resolution of service issues is the basis for every managed service and represents a managed service opportunity in itself.  Thus, the L3 NID is an on-ramp to managed services for both the user and the MSP, but it’s not the end of the story.

The next level in the Flexible Service Edge is the Managed Router.  A router is the user device most often connected to a service demarcation, and for many users, managing that router is more difficult than managing the service it connects with.  Users are more likely to look for router management in conjunction with a managed service than for any other add-on service.  For MSPs, that means there’s a significant financial upside to including the management of customer premises equipment (CPE) in a service contract.

Managed CPE relationships that have to accommodate many different vendors and models of router aren’t efficient.  A better approach, one recognized by both MSPs and by communications service providers (CSPs) is the “universal CPE” approach.  A software instance of a router is loaded and maintained in a white-box device, and all its features and parameters are controllable from the 128T management system, which you’ll recall can present multiple role-based views to its users.  128T’s Managed Router includes the L3 NID functionality already described, so full SLA monitoring and management is included and extended to router functionality.

The final step for both the user and the MSP is the agile connectivity future that CIOs themselves say will be the rule going forward.  For this step, 128T’s Session Smart Router adds full SD-WAN, SDN, and virtual-network capability.  For my view of 128T’ full capabilities, my blog provides a view of their latest announcement.

MSPs know about SD-WAN and its opportunities, but most MSP SD-WAN services are based on technologies that offer nothing more than small-site support.  128T makes SD-WAN a powerful tool, and the Flexible Service Edge provides them with a way to upsell from a basic managed service to full SD-WAN, retaining the same customer SLA management features and even the same customer portal presentation.

CSPs are increasingly interested in SD-WAN too, and in particular, as lockdowns have dispersed workforces to locations never considered “on-network” candidates.  SD-WAN can extend a VPN, but it can also accelerate time-to-revenue for new MPLS implementations, by offering a way to quickly introduce SD-WAN managed connectivity, complete with monitoring, and then backfilling MPLS VPN service into key locations as the lines become available.  It’s even possible to make temporary or permanent site connections with LTE or 5G and to use either as a site backup technology for users with high availability needs.

Finally, both MSPs and CSPs can use managed services as a foundation for higher-value services above basic connectivity.  One example is unified communications and collaboration as a service (UCaaS) On average, UCaaS has a greater priority for about a third of enterprises because most enterprise-hosted UCC platforms can’t be easily extended to those remote workers that are now an established piece of every enterprise workforce plan.  Even cloud computing services can be facilitated by the 128T Session Smart Router because router instances can be placed in the cloud, even hybrid and multi-cloud, to create direct communications with cloud-resident and cloud-agile applications.

We are at the very start of a new age, an age where a company is a collection of workers and information resources rather than a collection of physical facilities.  Network technology is the only thing that can accommodate that change, keeping worker and application relationships intact no matter where all the pieces of the productivity puzzle land.  Managed services are an important part of that new network technology, and 128 Technology has made an important, even critical, contribution to managed services with its Flexible Service Edge.