Imagine you're a retailer with hundreds of locations across the nation. Each individual site now needs to support multiple applications – from secure payment processing compliance, to point of sale promotions, to inventory system updates, video security and more. The individual sites also need connectivity to multiple partners in the ecosystem, including corporate and regional headquarters, suppliers and cloud providers. In addition, the business needs to ensure that all these systems are resilient in order to stay operational even during an unexpected outage.
To keep all locations efficient and synchronized, a powerful and adaptive network is required. To make network connectivity and business applications all hum and synched together in one system, the business will need a powerful and virtualized network.
The true cost of application hosting at the edge
In the current environment, a business with multiple locations typically houses numerous network devices and application servers at each location to support the collection of required applications plus any associated network functions. If one application or network function goes down, the system for that site is offline. Or, worse, the devices require an upgrade which can only be done physically at each site, under diverse cycle times.
The only way to fix an outage, replace a device or install a new application is to get a technician to visit in person to fix it, which can amount to thousands of dollars in some instances. Mulitply that for hundreds of sites, and for each issue, and you start to see the whole innovation unravel; we'd enter a perpetual cycle wherein one solution comes at the cost of another.
But what if everything was virtualized? What if we said goodbye to the eclectic combination of processing and network hardware that has previously been required and instead used a single device that combined virtual network functions with the business application(s) themselves?
We have done this for years with the smartphone: if we need an application, we just download it with the simple click of a button or tap on the screen. Applications can be updated remotely, security patches can be applied as needed, and new features can be rolled out in minutes instead of days or weeks. Applications run on a device that fits in the palm of our hands, while any updates are delivered from the cloud via the network.
It's never been feasible previously to make the enterprise this efficient. But now, by combining business applications along with virtualized network functions onto a single device, such business efficiencies are at hand.
It's probably best described as a "cloud-in-a-box."
The smartphone-ization of the branch: as easy as V-N-F
A cloud-in-a-box – perhaps more commonly referred to as "Business in a Box" or "Infrastructure In a Box" – takes everything to the edge, and dramatically reduces the possibility of business disruptions due to the misfunctioning or end-of-life application servers or network devices at each location.
With a cloud-in-a-box simplifying everything into one cloud managed entity, the "smart digital store" or "smart hospital" is now possible thanks to a reliance on virtualized network functions (VNFs) and business applications.
The cloud or infrastructure in-a-box concept can be applied to multiple business settings: take healthcare, where numerous small clinics and physician offices can converge healthcare applications and network functions onto a single chassis.
Another great example is in the manufacturing space, where the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) relies on near-zero latency to function optimally. The compute, analysis and connect required can all be provided locally in the back office for each manufacturing plant, as can the unique IIoT and private 5G applications required. This can be done consistently and with continuous coordination among all manufacturing plants, regardless of location.
One of the key benefits to a cloud-in-a-box is simply cost control. The days of sending a technician to fix or replace multiple pieces of hardware at each site across the country at diverse intervals would be nullified as, like a smartphone, updates and patches can be developed at HQ and sent to each virtualized server.
In addition, can you imagine how slow innovation would be for our smartphones if we had to get a technician out to install or update every single application we wanted? That's been the reality of the enterprise until now. But with a virtualized edge, "Business-in-a-Box" enterprises can more quickly innovate with the deployment of VNFs and business applications to every SD-Branch.
Handing the reins to software, from the network to the edge
Service providers can generate new revenue by providing both the onsite capabilities as well as by providing multi-tenant application hosting/compute capability in a central office serving multiple customer locations in a metro area.
How close are we to this technology being a reality? To get there, ideally the solution is software-enabled, able to adjust to changing needs and its architecture open, meaning it's able to adaptably support multiple vendors, providing customers the choice and flexibility of VNF and application vendors in a "best-of-breed" approach. This promotes innovation and the likelihood of a wider array of VNFs being available for the network, but also assists in making it adaptive and able to address technology preferences across a network of branches, regardless of distance.
According to our estimates, this can save the business up to 40% in opex.
This "cloud-in-a-box" is set to provide a way for us to make the management of Branch IT as simple as downloading an app for a smartphone; this could save millions of dollars for many businesses, but it is also set to increase the rate of innovation and agility and deliver the seamless customer experience we all want.
—Steve Alexander, Chief Technology Officer, Ciena