Being the brand: Virgin takes SD-WAN to the next level

Companies are increasingly turning to software-defined wide-area networks to address the needs of remote workforces

Creating strong brand equity can be a double-edged sword. As good as it is to have developed a robust reputation for expertise in a particular area, it can work against future efforts to make logical extensions and departures to new areas.

Take the case of mobile communications providers. Having worked hard to establish themselves in the wireless domain, companies in this sector have found it an uphill task to develop the same reputation for competence in the fixed world, a move that for a communications provider is utterly necessary.

This can also go the other way. Fixed providers BT and Virgin Media have very different approaches to their associated mobile brands. Much to the current delight of Kevin Bacon, the former has decided to, for the present at least, keep the hard-earned EE brand as its mobile offering.

Virgin Media has taken the other approach. All of Virgin’s sub-brands and business lines are part of the comms network mothership. And while many would immediately recognise the company’s mobile division as one of these, they may not regard the company’s network services business in the same light, despite its advances in software-defined wide-area networking (SD-WAN), secure access service edge (SASE) and security.

It’s fair to say that the network services division’s light is kept under the corporate bushel. In its 2020 annual results, published on 15 February 2021, Virgin Media parent Liberty Global made reference to a B2B division that continued to see strong demand for high-capacity and other essential communications services, with highlights such as installation contract wins for full-fibre and other high-capacity services. And yet the SD-WAN and SASE lines keep growing, and with Covid-19 have become more important.

Remote reliability

Companies are increasingly turning to SD-WAN to address the needs of workforces that are now fundamentally more remote than ever before, certainly more than this time last year. Yet while the leap in collaboration wasn’t unknown 12 months ago, the proliferation in SD-WAN use has only just got quicker due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

The pandemic and the subsequent de facto normalisation of remote access has also fuelled the digital transformation strategies of companies of all sizes. By deploying SD-WAN, companies can potentially benefit from modern and agile technology to accelerate their digital transformation plans, providing a platform for the quick and easy deployment of multiple services, such as dynamic routing and path selection, with scalability and flexibility.

But companies can only rely on such setups in the knowledge of a secure infrastructure combining SD-WAN capability with network optimisation and application delivery to guarantee application availability, security, visibility and acceleration.

For Virgin Media Business product director Andrew Halliwell, the ongoing crisis has only heightened the need for such technology. And that this is taking place with the added dynamic of consumerisation of business – that is, in the context of the hybrid workplace and proliferation of remote working, where do consumer and networking differ, and where does one end and the other begin? Consumerisation of business expectation is having a big impact on the market, he says, and it’s coming to the expectations of services.

“The way we look to deliver business definitely has expectations set by some of the consumer services. That said – and I think this is particularly apparent as we shift in huge swathes to remote working – the importance of reliable, high-quality performance connectivity, security, data and business infrastructure that helps connect customers and colleagues and users, whatever device they’re on and the applications they need, continues to be a huge driver,” Halliwell remarks.

“The way we look to deliver business definitely has expectations set by some of the consumer services. That said, the importance of reliable, high-quality performance connectivity, security, data and business infrastructure that helps connect customers and colleagues and users, whatever device they’re on and the applications they need, continues to be a huge driver”

Andrew Halliwell, Virgin Media Business

“The impact of consumerisation, raising the bar on quality of activity in the home and for home entertainment services, is relevant, and it’s an important asset for the Virgin Media Business footprint. Our consumer connectivity products are an access element in a broader business portfolio, where we look to connect offices, home users and remote workers, and help our business customers serve their customers,” he adds.

And that means serving customers increasingly located at home. But Halliwell agrees with the general consensus in the networking industry that the move towards SD-WAN and support for a more sophisticated infrastructure has been happening for some time now, and that Covid-19 has only accelerated, not initiated, the process.

In fact, Virgin Media Business first started talking about such a dynamic a couple of years ago when it began working in earnest within the realm of SD-WAN, and encountered what Halliwell describes as a world where traditional Internet Protocol virtual private networks (IP VPNs) and wide-area networks (WANs) had a “north/south” topology between fixed datacentres and offices and campuses in a very fixed environment. These days, these axes have shifted to east/west, he says, with colleagues and customers, wherever they may be, accessing a variety of clouds and applications in and outside of corporate datacentres, promoting a new wave of infrastructure usage.

“The whole dynamic of wide-area networking is fundamentally shifting [from] this fixed north/south to any user any device, any place securely and reliably accessing applications and services,” he notes.

“We’re seeing Covid-19 just fuel traction for needing better cloud-native connectivity. That’s not to say the wide-area network doesn’t continue to be a really important dynamic for customers running their businesses, connecting their employees, connecting their customers and delivering business value. It just means that the topology really needs this east/west flexibility to really work in a secure, cloud-native way.

“The refuelled traction on the next wave of SD-WAN is very rarely done by businesses in isolation at the moment. It’s nearly always done alongside a major cloud deployment service such as a Microsoft Teams/Office 365 project or another shift to Office, or another uptick in remote working to cloud access. It tends to have those sorts of trigger points, rather than just being an evolution of business infrastructure as it might have been two or three years ago.”

Proving value

After a year like no other, how has this shaped the Virgin Media Business offer, and how are the learnings from the unprecedented times being translated into evolving SD-WAN solutions?

The fundamental thing, says Halliwell, is that Virgin has been going to market with an offer that provides better network agility, better cloud connectivity, flexibility and security embedded across the breadth of the platform. Moreover, Virgin has been going to customers with proof of value, showing in practice how the technology can support their key business applications or cloud services. After a strong second half of 2020 with over a dozen new SD-WAN customers in the UK, Virgin plans to maintain this momentum in 2021 by demonstrating how the business case works for customers, as well as the customer experience of key business applications and services.

Over the past couple of years, the company has transitioned from being overwhelmingly engaged in traditional multiprotocol label switching (MPLS) and Ethernet projects, with only around 20% of projects being SD-WAN led, to the stage where the vast majority of the tenders it works on are now SD-WAN related.

Virgin is also helping a number of its existing MPLS managed service customers transition to new network solutions at a speed that is right for their business. Sometimes they will be looking to adopt SD-WAN in certain instances or at network renewal points. This is indicative, says Halliwell, of Virgin shifting within the past 12 to 18 months from being an early adopter to an early majority position in the market.

Enhanced security

The latest iteration of the new offering, launched at the beginning of February 2021, saw Virgin Media Business enhance cloud security with the addition of the Zscaler service portfolio, driven by the global Zero Trust Exchange platform. The cloud-native platform is designed to provide a highly integrated cloud security service that sits between an organisation’s users and its corporate applications and networks, facilitating a secure connection between users, applications and devices over any network, in any location, helping accelerate cloud adoption and hybrid working strategies and boost productivity while reducing risk and costs.

Virgin Media Business sees working with Zscaler as a way to enhance its SD-WAN, hybrid cloud and cloud security suite by offering a world-leading service that encompasses a SASE framework with cloud-native technology and security services such as secure web gateway, cloud firewall, cloud sandbox, cloud access security broker, cloud data loss preventions and secure remote access without the challenges that on-premise equipment often presents, making it perfectly suited to organisations looking to protect their data with a dispersed or remote workforce.

Halliwell believes SD-WAN is on a route to converge with SASE security as a philosophy and framework and that the crucial aspect will be to see how this convergence works in a remote and distributed working environment, with regard to the operational flexibility that businesses are having to put their sites through rapid change and deal with other issues such as consolidation or acquisitions and mergers over the next couple of years. This means the implementation of an agile, flexible infrastructure that not only delivers robust application performance in the context of increased remote working, but is able to adjust and evolve with the business. Supporting these requirements will be a key part of Virgin’s offer in 2021, he says.

Halliwell says the importance of network connectivity and connecting businesses to cloud services has never been more important and does not expect a slowing in traction and next-generation SD-WAN uptake. “What will be interesting, as businesses rebalance after lockdown, is how tolerant they are of their legacy operations, having moved to run them almost entirely on cloud services for remote working and digital services,” he adds.

Brand delivery

One thing Halliwell is not concerned about is the fundamental brand issue. He believes his division’s brand equity, if not its heritage, is centred around networking for business customers, especially with regard to mid-sized UK enterprises, regional government and the public sector in general.

“Our brand isn’t about developing our own in-house technology for SD-WAN. It’s about delivering a working SD-WAN solution that delivers the business outcome for UK businesses and public sector customers”
Andrew Halliwell, Virgin Media Business

“They are looking to us for ways to find and adopt some of the new SD-WAN benefits,” he says. “The technology has been around in the market for a while, but our customers want a partner that can help them deploy the service and the business case effectively, not [direct] them to a pain point technology that gives them headaches with testing, security, deployment, management or feature releases.

“Our brand isn’t about developing our own in-house technology for SD-WAN. It’s about delivering a working SD-WAN solution that delivers the business outcome for UK businesses and public sector customers. In addition, we work with a great ecosystem of technology partners to deliver what we think is the very best. We’ve picked out the best-in-breed technology standards [and deployed] those in such a way that they work seamlessly as a managed service to deliver the right SD-WAN outcomes for our business customers.”

And within this customer base is Virgin Media itself. The connectivity division has been part of UK infrastructure providers’ efforts to keep the country connected during the pandemic and support the vast increase in remote working. It too has demand, if not need, for the advantages that SD-WAN can bring.

“We have the same dynamic and the same challenges, with a huge shift to remote working and having to think differently about how we want to use our fixed offices and operational spaces moving forward,” Halliwell notes. “We have the same challenges of evolving legacy and our infrastructure, so we’re absolutely looking at using different SD-WAN services. We’ve already deployed them in some elements in our network. And as with all businesses, we’re looking at how we can optimise our cloud remote working in a collaboration toolset in a post-Covid context. We want to do more to be faster with the digital services and address more of the legacy after lockdown.”

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