Preparing your network for cloud applications

The network is the weakest link in cloud computing as, without network access, staff are unable to connect to applications

The network is the weakest link in cloud computing as, without network access, staff are unable to connect to databases, e-mail or other applications.

While the cloud can store company data and deliver applications without the overheads of dedicated in-house servers and other hardware, the third party hosting the data or applications is not usually responsible for the network links from the customer to its facilities.

Companies must plan how they connect their corporate networks to third party cloud providers to ensure they have enough affordable and reliable bandwidth to serve their users' needs.

They must consider cost, service level agreements, security, network back up/fail-over to the cloud provider, network management and any specialist "network to the cloud" service offerings on the market. The Cisco Cloud Index predicts that over half of computing workloads in datacentres will be cloud-based by 2014. The Index also predicts global cloud traffic will grow over 12 times by 2015, to a mammoth 1.6 zettabytes per year.

Tweaking your network for the cloud

Whether it's timelines, security, cost, bandwidth or network protocols and performance to consider, Steve Salmon, principal advisor in KPMG’s CIO Advisory practice, said network administrators must tweak their networks to prepare for the cloud.

Salmon said: "Once data reaches the customer network from the cloud, there is work to be done by the network administrators to ensure that the information reaches the users in time to provide a rich or enhanced experience."

He said key to achieving this is reducing any latency in the network, which can be done by revisiting the network design to reduce bottlenecks and removing unnecessary switching or firewall infrastructures.

Salmon said the uptake of cloud has seen the rise of WAN acceleration services, where traffic can be prioritised, encrypted and sped through branch networks of the customer’s distributed IT environments.

Dr Graham Oakes is a consultant and author of Project Reviews, Assurance and Governance. Over the last 20 years he has worked on IT and networking projects for the likes of Sony Computer Entertainment, Vodafone, the Open University, Oxfam and the Council of Europe. He said: "Moving applications into the cloud clearly has an impact on network utilisation. But before buying more bandwidth, you have to do a couple of other things."

Oakes urges organisations to understand the traffic patterns associated with each application. Some applications are "surprisingly frugal" on the network, he said, while some are "surprisingly chatty". Making decisions based on data, not assumptions, is the key.

He recommends network managers keep track of data latency, or delay. Often it is not the amount of data being transferred that matters, it is the amount of time users have to wait while applications render web pages or are fully loaded onto desktops. High latency means data packets must rely on multiple round trip journeys across many network portions that make up an enterprise's cloud operating environment.

Oakes said good wide area network (WAN) optimisation between the cloud facility and the corporate network is key to cloud deployments. He urges  efficient caching and protocol optimisation, for instance, being established ways to improve both latency and bandwidth performance.

James Wright, of the infrastructure consulting group at Accenture, said: "Until you have flexibility at the infrastructure level, including local area networks (LANs) and WAN networks, you will struggle to realise the benefits of shifting parts of your operations to the cloud. Put simply, it can very quickly become impractical, expensive and complicated, not to mention inoperable, to proceed if you don't get these areas of the cloud project right."

Wright said large organisations should consider an multiprotocol label switching (MPLS) network connection to link their corporate network to an external cloud provider. According to Wright, MPLS goes a long way to making sure the right people get access to the right applications at the right time, effectively addressing security, bandwidth performance, latency and availability requirements.

 "This is why implementing voice over MPLS is a great entry point for the corporate cloud. Most organisations give all their people a [IP-based] desk phone which sits alongside their workplace applications. So once that voice is in the cloud, the CIO has confidence, from a network access perspective, that connectivity is robust.

One of Europe's oldest law firms, Thomson Snell & Passmore, is a good example of an organisation getting its WAN right in preparation to moving into the cloud. The firm recently optimised its IT infrastructure with Silver Peak's WAN optimisation technology to migrate quickly and efficiently to the cloud.

Thomson Snell & Passmore simplified its network infrastructure in its hosted datacentre, enabling it to reduce network traffic by 45% and take full advantage of the cost and organisational benefits of its cloud infrastructure. David Bennett, head of information systems at Thomson Snell & Passmore, said: “As we moved all our applications into the cloud it became all the more imperative that our underlying network infrastructure was optimised to support the increased traffic demand.

"We can now take full advantage of our cloud infrastructure without having to invest in costly additional bandwidth or extra WAN capacity."

In addition, said Bennett, the firm got up and running in the cloud weeks ahead of schedule, which saved the company significant time and money. 

Value Retail, a company which specialises in the development and operation of luxury outlet retail villages, with nine existing ones in key European tourism markets, had its own network obstacles to overcome when it moved to the cloud, including ones related to timelines.

Its online presence is important to the business to promote to existing retail villages and drive further growth. The company is currently using cloud hosting provider FireHost to manage all 17 of its websites, and is also using FireHost’s Secure Cloud infrastructure-as-a-service (IaaS) model to supply infrastructure in the cloud.

Shazad Awan, digital development manager at Value Retail, said: “Although one of the providers we looked at had a satisfactory approach to support, we were given a quote of eight weeks to switch everything over, which didn’t fill me with confidence. We’d also have to host everything on dedicated hardware."

Awan claimed many hosting companies "just didn't seem to be set up for the cloud environment we required". In contrast, said Awan, the current provider told the firm it could move over to their cloud environment in less than a week.

“Another key advantage with our current provider is that websites are constantly monitored for security threats and malicious activity. For example, if a denial of service (DoS) attack is detected, traffic is automatically offloaded, without causing downtime."

This means that customers aren’t put at risk from security threats and don’t experience any disruption when they visit Value Retail sites, said Awan.

Read more on Voice networking and VoIP