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For Simply Business, a supplier of technology and insurance brokerage services to small and medium enterprises (SMEs), the decision to go all in on cloud-based IT laid bare the terrible state of its elderly legacy network and the shoddy service it was receiving from one of the UK’s most prominent network providers, prompting a move to software-defined wide area network (SD-WAN) technology that is paying dividends.
Back in 2016, the London-headquartered firm, which also runs a call centre in Northamptonshire and a satellite office in Boston in the US, was limping along on a managed multiprotocol label switching (MPLS) network service with “bottlenecks galore and no visibility whatsoever,” says the firm’s senior business operations engineer, Vijay Prasad.
Much of the collapse of confidence in the network, and Simply Business’ old provider, stemmed from the firm’s decision to go all-in on Amazon Web Services (AWS) a few years ago. This enabled a rapid change in the business’ culture, with the cloud enabling more modern and flexible working in general, while its IT team was able to become more agile, hopping from project to project as they liked.
However, as the organisation went through the digital transformation process, it found that the MPLS-based approach was out of step with the new automated and hosted world. It was unable to apply two-way quality of service (QoS) or gain clear visibility of its network health, and worse still, was paying for two connections at each site but could only utilise one at a time.
When he arrived at Simply Business 18 months ago, Prasad also struggled to get much sense out of the firm’s network provider.
“It was meant to be a managed network and I had no idea what state it was in. I basically had to work with our previous supplier to find out information about myself, and the process of working with them to get anything done was impossible – it took a week to get information, days to talk to the right person. We had issues and errors and we didn’t know why,” he says.
“We had lost any ability to understand or scale our network. Changes took weeks. We were opening an office in Boston and there was no confidence we could do any kind of networking capability in time,” says infrastructure lead David Vered.
The last straw
But it was the decision to upgrade the phone system that finally forced Simply Business’ hand in late 2016.
“We wanted to move to [cloud comms platform provider] Twilio and we needed to guarantee the network was going to be good enough for our new phone system, and we were just having too many problems,” says Prasad.
After running the rule over a number of options, Prasad and his team turned to newly founded Breeze Networks, which was set up by four former employees of Capita’s networking arm Updata, with a mission to champion SD-WAN and other new ways of delivering networks as opposed to traditional network infrastructure. Simply Business was to become its first ever customer.
“We essentially take the VeloCloud proposition – which is the US SD-WAN supplier [recently acquired by VMware] we partner with, and then partner with all the major ISPs [internet service providers] and put a service wrap around it,” says Breeze CTO Matthew Lea.
“From my point of view, a lot of people are ready to go and can see the benefits of SD-WAN, but need someone to help them achieve that goal, and a lot of traditional infrastructure providers almost don’t want businesses to achieve that goal because it suits them to keep customers on MPLS,” Lea tells Computer Weekly.
“At Updata we ran things like Swan [the Scottish government’s wide area network] and saw the same challenges and frustrations that Simply Business was seeing, just from the other side; old networks are very complicated and it is very difficult to make changes.
“Lots of people who take a managed service these days are getting frustrated with it. With AWS and Azure they want to be able to do it themselves.”
Breeze was enlisted to deploy VeloCloud’s SD-WAN technology at Simply Business’ call centre, using software running in AWS, making the organisation one of the first businesses in the world to run a call centre using an SD-WAN.
It also replaced the MPLS network – overlaid at first while Simply Business ran out the clock on its MSP contract – as well as installing central firewall and AWS interconnects, and new resilient circuits and cloud-based web filtering.
The whole process took from early April to August 2016, and Prasad says being able to overlay the new service on top of the old to begin with was particularly helpful because it added extra flexibility.
“We needed that because we were working with a provider that didn’t make it easy for us to leave, so we could set it up over the top then move as fast as the provider would or could allow,” he says.
“We actually ended up staying with the old provider on one connection for a year, and when we switched that off we just sat and watched our internet connections get faster and faster,” says Prasad.
For Prasad, the hardest part of the implementation was extricating Simply Business from its contracts with its old MSP. Working through an office move to new premises at London’s Moorgate also held up the process while Simply Business’ IT team went through the often time-consuming and bureaucratic process of getting its new internet connections installed.
In the long-run, he says, the pain of transition was worth it to move to an ISP-agnostic setup – Simply Business can now plug any ISP into the VeloCloud edge, then the software layer connects a private tunnel through the connection to the VeloCloud and is immediately connected to the private network environment, which means it can have multiple active internet connections and no downtime if any of them should fail.
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The benefits accrued by Simply Business from switching to SD-WAN technology centre on five main areas, said Prasad: around ease of configuration and management; API access, giving it the ability to manage its network as code; managing and implementing network changes across all sites and devices through one profile and a central console; features such as dynamic multipath optimisation and the ability to run virtual instances in the cloud which easily connects cloud environments; and finally, the ability to utilise different cloud gateways as break-out points, giving the firm the power to shape and manage global traffic itself, or letting the software take the lead on this using its own algorithms and metrics.
Crucially for the organisation, the ability to see what is happening on the network and keep tabs on its health has also proved invaluable. Simply Business can now see how well an ISP connection is working, with packet loss and jitter logged and captured in real time.
It now has a network service that is both managed by Breeze, and manageable by itself through an orchestrator portal, which means the IT team can log in and create their own business rules to match the company’s needs, such as prioritising virtual private network tunnels for mobile workers into AWS without having to call out a Breeze engineer.
For example, after its office move Prasad set up the business with cloud videoconferencing service Zoom. “It was choppy for a while, so we did packet capture and saw no rules were being applied to it. We then quickly created a rule to prioritise the traffic as high, and moments later it was running in full high-definition,” he says.
“We like using things as a service – and this is fully network-as-a-service – but I can make any changes at will.”