In IT speak, “as-a-Service” has come to stand for ‘instant’ and ‘easy’ – attributes that Rogers stressed in announcing new services aimed at helping Canadian businesses better manage their network and security infrastructure. With Virtual Managed Network Services, WiFi-as-a-Service, and a new Rapid Application Development Platform, the cable company’s Enterprise Business Unit (EBU) is looking to transform ‘service’ to ‘problem solving’ for its customers, and the role of Rogers EBU to that of solution provider.
According to president of the Rogers EBU Nitin Kawale, these new managed service offerings are a response to broad “connected transformations” that are shaping the business communications landscape. The first he defined as customer interest in outcome based solution sets, a second is the “mobile first” trend, which has seen businesses prioritize the implementation of mobile capabilities as a primary source of new productivity, and the last is a more familiar refrain – the ongoing engagement of IT staff in management and maintenance of IT systems, which prevents their involvement in higher value activities. To support this last point, Kawale noted results from a Rogers commissioned survey of Canadian businesses conducted by Vision Critical which found that 73 percent of respondents say they waste a lot of time and money “keeping the lights on,” a figure that ironically represents an improvement over Gartner historical findings on the share of IT budgets devoted to maintenance and mandatory tasks.
But if things are getting better, they are still far from ideal, a situation that Kawale believes is best addressed through the “convergence of IT and mobile” – the third broad transformation. Traditionally, he argued, IT products and services have been bought by IT and delivered by a few primary suppliers through distribution channels that had little knowledge of mobility, while mobility was delivered separately to the business by the communications provider through the office of the CFO. With capabilities now developed in both these areas, however, the Rogers EBU is aiming to “disrupt the industry” by simplifying networking. Kawale explained: “our objective is to provide Rogers Virtual Network Managed Services as-a-service – things like IT infrastructure and networking services should be no different than other utilities that run inside your organization.”
So what are the new services, and how do they work? Off the top is managed WiFi-as-a-Service, Rogers’ remote management of the customer’s WLAN needs out of cloud-based resources. As the company described it, WiFi-as-a-Service replaces a business’ legacy infrastructure with next gen, cloud managed access points (Meraki brand) and security appliances, and then monitors and manages WiFi connectivity on behalf of the organization. For the SMB customer, who may find consumer grade access points inadequate to the new mobility demands placed on the business and who may be not be quite ready for enterprise grade equipment, the Roger service offers a good middle ground alternative. The solution eliminates the need for SMBs to source scarce networking and security skills as a customer’s WiFi is designed, installed and managed by Rogers, and billed as a subscription with fixed cost. Kawale argued in his presentation that consistent service delivery with the right security, predictable SLAs and predictable costs which the new service offers, are precisely what the doctor ordered for the mid-range customer. Given the explosive growth of multiple devices and mobile applications in the SMB workplace – Techaisle Research into the US SMB market for 2015 has found that more than 40 percent of devices across virtually all size categories are BYOD, and that SMBs expect to double their use of mobile apps in the coming year – and the increasing propensity for SMBs to deploy IT managed services (Techaisle has forecast a CAGR of 12 percent for the SMB IT managed services market), this assessment has considerable merit.
A second new service offering is Roger’s Rapid Application Development Platform, which is perhaps less well defined. As Paul Monaghan, director, cloud and managed services, Rogers EBU, described it, this platform is aimed at “enabling applications that are WiFi aware,” such as a retail application that would pitch a sale at a customer located in a specific zone of the store’s WiFi. Essentially, the platform deposits statistical information from the WiFi environment, including WiFi access point stream location data and other analytics, in a cloud repository as foundation for development of mobile applications. But rather than a coding environment, Mohaghan described the platform as “more template based”: nevertheless, “it can get as fancy as the customer wants, we can do simple captive portal applications… or we can create native applications that integrate with back end systems.” “This is all about creating business outcomes,” he explained, “about taking the infrastructure and using it not just for internal needs but to drive additional business benefit from the technology.”
Roger’s key announcement is Virtual Managed Network Services, which Monaghan described as “applying cloud technologies to the networks and the services that businesses need,” such as security, firewalls, web filtering, VPNs – “all of the stuff that businesses need to interconnect their offices, along with WAN connectivity.” By delivering these technologies ‘as-a-service’, Rogers intends to eliminate the need for “iron on-site” (technology installed at each company location). A key point, Monaghan explained, is that this service can be delivered from the Rogers cloud over multiple connectivity media – WiFi in the case of a smaller business, cable or fibre in the case of an enterprise – and a secure virtual WAN created with a single point of interaction for the business. The goal is to simplify management for the customer, delivering services “just like water,” he added.
In terms of scope, Monaghan claimed that Virtual Managed Network Services can extend to any area of the network that the customer needs it to, covering access networks to data centre networks, and delivering services at the head office, branch locations, and in Rogers data centres and other third-party cloud environments. “We do this by leveraging things like network function virtualization, software defined networking: all we really need is an Internet connection, and we can provide a secure, private network from anywhere back into our cloud for security management, and – very importantly – rapidly deploy new services.” As example, he described a Rogers single pane of glass portal that would allow the customer to order intrusion protection in real time, and delivery of that service into the customer network “in minutes, applying policies to all locations as needed.” Simple, non?
If this service is easy and instant for the customer to deploy, the capabilities and the scope that Rogers outlines for the new managed network services are anything but. Beyond multiple locations and a plethora of specific services – “it really depends on how far the customer wants to go, we can go right down the stack if we needed to,” Monaghan explained – the offering extends to any customer environment, a necessary requirement, it would seem, given the heterogenous infrastructure that is in place within many enterprises and across the Canadian market. Building an offering with this breadth of scope would require a complex mix of skills, technology and resource, which Rogers has accomplished in a simple way – through partnership with Cisco for its expertise and for its evolving service provider offerings. Rogers is part of Cisco’s “lighthouse program’, one of four providers worldwide chosen to implement new Cisco SP networking solutions. Specifically, Rogers is building a series of OpenStack cloud platforms on Cisco’s UCS hardware, which will run Cisco’s version of network function virtualization, and NSO in particular as an orchestration layer that allows Rogers to “talk to the network” at an API level for service delivery management in real time.
Rogers’ use of the Cisco platform as cornerstone for its branded managed service offering begs the question, what about managing other vendor platforms that exist in customer environments? To this, Monaghan offers a simple answer: “customers today may have firewalls from Cisco or Juniper, VPNs from different companies, and a hodgepodge of security technology within their environment. What we are suggesting is that we protect the edge of their network leveraging cloud-based technology where we put the brains of the security in the cloud. It is no longer a physical thing at the customer premise – the edge network [where company networks connect to the Internet] is protected natively through the cloud at the access level instead of putting the appliance on the customer site. So it’s a way to replace what they currently have to protect the edge network – we don’t’ monitor existing hardware.” For customers’ internal, data centre networks, Rogers has also developed capability to replace physical switches and internal firewalls with cloud-based virtual managed solutions. Not quite ‘rip and replace’, but close enough so that Rogers is able to deliver on much of the promise of cloud: through virtualization of services like firewall or web filtering, Rogers is able to provide these services on-demand, in real time and simultaneously across multiple customer locations, without CAPEX investment.
According to Monaghan, “the biggest challenge in what we are doing is that we are trying to take enterprise technology and turn it into a media that is consumable by the medium sized market. Traditionally, managed services like this are very expensive… but we are leveraging the cloud to provide as much automation as possible so we don’t need expensive people [networking specialists] who have to travel to the customer site, so we are driving costs down that we can pass on to the customer.” No doubt many SMBs look forward to execution.