Cloud Service Providers: Over or Under for Virtual Network Services?

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by John Vincenzo

“Under the boardwalk, we’ll be having some fun. Under the boardwalk, people walking above…”  --The Drifters

Maybe it’s not the boardwalk, but as I think about the deployment models cloud service providers (CSPs) have at their disposal for offering virtual network services, that’s where my head went. You see, CSPs essentially have two options: an over the cloud approach; and (cue The Drifters) under the cloud. It’s a stretch, but what can I say? I like it.

Everywhere you turn, someone is talking about ‘cloud,’ and while the term itself is certainly overused, the value and potential cloud computing offers should not be overlooked. Whether it’s an internal IT shop or a CSP, both are looking for two things:

  1. Agility – in the form of rapid procurement and provisioning as well as the ability to elastically grow and shrink services on demand and deliver true multi-tenancy with service level agreements.
  2. Cost Savings – the ability to leverage commodity hardware, avoiding the expense of costly hardware appliances, and the ability for customers to pay for what they use rather than buying products that meet the high end of their capacity planning estimates, which typically factor in their just-in-case scenarios.

CSPs are much further along in executing their cloud strategies than most enterprises and these two elements are critical to their business models. Both server virtualization and storage architectures have been evolving to address these issues – by decoupling applications from hardware – but is it possible to do this to the network?

The answer is 'yes', and progress is being made. But because the network isn’t agile, building elastic, enterprise-class virtual network services is complex and challenging and naturally has lagged behind. That is starting to change, though, and CSPs have two deployment models available for offering virtual network services, such as load balancers, firewalls, VPNs and WAN optimization: over-the-cloud or under-the-cloud.

Over the Cloud
The first option, dubbed ‘over’ the cloud, seeks to overcome limitations in current hardware and virtual appliance products (’-…-networking). Trying to make the best of a tough situation, cloud service providers essentially bolt some functionality on over their existing cloud infrastructure (compute and storage). Unfortunately, because this deployment approach isn’t purpose-build for the cloud, it falls short in delivering the level of agility originally sought by virtual network services.

In this case, the only true infrastructure as-a-service (IaaS) offering is a pool of compute capacity – typically a set of orchestrated virtual machines (VMs) – that you then let the user figure out what to do with. Some CSPs have tried to work around these limitations by selling pre-provisioned virtual appliances, but that presents a number of unwanted challenges to the end user. First, end users still have to configure these VMs, adding unwanted complexity on their part. It also means the only service (i.e. value) that the CSP is adding is the initial installation of software on the VM. Second, end users also have to deal with independent, individual virtual appliances for each service (a load balancer from vendor X, a firewall from vendor Y, etc.) and learn how to configure and use each one of them.

CSPs offering over-the-cloud services end up making their customers responsible for choosing, installing, configuring, operating, managing and maintaining these network services. This creates a situation where both the customer and the CSP lose, as there is little value creation and thus no business opportunity. So what’s the point?

Under the Cloud
The more we talk to those building IaaS offerings, the more it’s becoming clear what they should do: Go under the cloud, not over it (See figure below).

With the under-the-cloud approach, the delivery of network services has been redesigned to provide true cloud functionality, with all of the agility, dynamic provisioning, elasticity, scale-out performance, multi-tenancy and cost savings that cloud promises. In this instance, the CSP takes ownership of the complexity and delivers the network service inside their infrastructure. What they then expose to the customer is not the product, but rather the functionality, delivered as-a-service. Now, the customer can order a service – for example - load balancing, and have it procured and provisioned in minutes, essentially on demand, without having to implement the service itself. It is all under one roof, or the cloud.

CSPs also get back to their true value proposition with an under-the-cloud approach, delivering a service to customers that these customers don’t have to worry about, which in turn allows them to focus on providing value to their respective business. With under-the-cloud, CSPs can now offer more true cloud services, differentiate their business and reduce customer churn. In this instance, CSPs have laid the foundation for true network agility and cost savings that they can pass on to customers.

The bottom line is that the cloud changes everything. It requires new ways to deliver services and a new mindset for both the providers and users of services. Just ask The Drifters and I think they’ll agree: In this new world, it is better to go under than over.

John Vincenzo is the vice president of marketing at Embrane (Santa Clara, CA).