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SDN SERIES: A Deeper Dive into Software Defined Networking

Virtual1 CTO, James Hickman, explains the benefits of SDN

Software Defined Networking is changing the way service providers deliver connectivity products to their customers and has drastically increased flexibility, security and efficiency on a number of different levels – but how exactly does it do this?

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Virtual1 CTO, James Hickman

To find out, we decided to contact the UK’s most advanced wholesale carrier network supplier, Virtual1, and ask their CTO, James Hickman, how SDN has helped them improve their business practice and how it can help others do the same.

Over the last year, Virtual1’s main objectives have been to reduce the complexity of how they build services and to make sure they could scale more efficiently without filling up lots of desks – and they understood that using SDN to automate the implementation of new services was required for them to accomplish this goal.

In order to do this, Virtual1 first of all needed to pool all of their data and resources together and, though, according to Hickman, using SDN to write a piece of config onto a router is a pretty straightforward task, a clearer understanding of what type of config was going to be written onto the routers in advance was a much more complex task that needed to be addressed.

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Taking this into account, Virtual1 spent a long time trying to make their system more efficient by pooling databases and making it easier for people to do things manually, and once they did that, the next objective was a to choose a centralised, orchestration system, populate it with the available inventory details and hand over the control of the network to it in stages.

At this point, any changes made to any of those core devices was restricted, with the core system acting as the central brain of the network that would roll back and rewrite config if it detected anything that didn’t match the databases.

After this, once everything within the Virtual1 network was migrated over onto the system, the next step was to add clarity to their product offering and develop more regimented ways of rolling those products out to their partners in consistent way.

The next step, Hickman told us, was to put automation into their internal Salesforce CRM system to make it easier for them to build new services from a front of house perspective, with unique configuration setups being automatically applied to each separate customer within the network based on their specific requirements.

It was at this point Virtual1 proceeded to further and cut down on “briefcase time” by taking the control from their own hands and placing it into the hands of their partners via the 1Portal.

“By enabling our partners to place their orders directly through the 1Portal, they are able to send their request straight into the backend where it can be automated and orders can be fulfilled as quickly as possible.”

On a traditional network, Hickman informed us, gathering all of the relevant details together for a build, generating all of the config, laying it all out onto a device, testing it and shipping it out the door could take as much as an hour to complete – whereas with SDN, the whole process can be completed in as little as 15 minutes with less than half of the labour cost.

As well as this, another huge feature SDN enables Virtual1 to offer, is amend the config in flight, meaning the config settings on routers can be updated after the order has been sent out without needing to recall them for manual reconfiguration. As you can imagine, this adds much more efficiency to the process, is more cost effective and is a highly flexible feature that streamlines the ordering process and ensures that Virtual1 customers get the right product in the fastest time possible.

Moreover, Hickman gave another example of how SDN helped them deliver better, more efficient service to their customers by informing us of a recent 300 circuit build the company carried out.   

“Typically, on a 300 circuit build we would have to assign a substantial number of engineers to the task. With SDN, however, we were able to populate all of the databases within CRM system to determine where the sites are and what kind of configs they were going to need. After this, we just hit the go button to generate 300 identical configs on demand then it was just a case of turning up and plugging the routers in.”

What makes this even more impressive is that, now that the SDN centralised controller does all of the legwork, the task requires just one engineer rather than dozens to “install” the routers across multiple sites.

Furthermore, the automation SDN offers also helps improve efficiency from a front of house perspective by removing the need to assign and allocate network ports and other equipment to the front end manually. Instead, all of the information is pre-configured and, if necessary, can be changed within minutes at the click of a button.

Along with the flexibility it delivers to the build and the front of house instalment, Hickman also explained how SDN can be used to help meet the demands of businesses with sporadic bandwidth needs by allowing them to upgrade/downgrade their bandwidth support as and when needed.

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For example, any Virtual1 partners who have customers that run events spaces or concert arenas, for example, are able to simply increase or decrease the amount bandwidth their customer receives by logging into to 1Portal, moving the relevant slider across and hitting go.

Finally, with regards to security, as the SDN controller is the only thing that able to control the network, if somebody was to try and do something malicious to one of the core pieces of equipment, the controller that is constantly scanning for suspicious activity will simply roll back to its original settings if it encounters any problems.

Similarly, as SDN provides an automated service that cuts out the need for manual installations, the risk of human error is massively reduced and customers can be confident that each installed device will be consistent and reliable.

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Over the next few months we will be running our biweekly Virtual1 sponsered SDN Series where readers can learn about what Software Defined Networking is, why it is currently experiencing huge growth and how it can help improve business communications on a number of different levels.

In our next article we will be taking a look at how SDN can add value to a proposition and improve the sales performance of businesses that run on a software defined network.

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John Woods

Written by John Woods

Hi, I'm John Woods - Staff Writer at CommsTrader. I enjoy travelling and of course, reviewing technology products!