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Koch’s networking: Computer Weekly Downtime Upload podcast

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Matt Hoag, CTO of Koch Business Solutions, discusses networking as a service

The idea of “lift and shift” makes no sense in the cloud. Matt Hoag, chief technology officer (CTO) for Koch Business Solutions, points out that while lifting and shifting workloads may work as a short-term measure, as organisations buy time to develop cloud-native software, enterprise networking simply cannot be lifted and shifted to the cloud.

Koch Industries is a global company spanning a range of businesses, from oil and gas, to paper and pulp products, to enterprise software and electronics. Hoag has worked at Koch for 24 years. During his time there, the technology industry has seen vast change.

“Technology is changing more rapidly than it ever has before,” he says. “As we see technology invading every aspect of our personal lives, that’s happening in the business as well, [so we need to] understand how we can leverage that to be better competitively advantaged in the market – how we develop software, how we manufacture goods, or how we deliver services to customers. Connectivity is paramount to bringing technology into those types of goods and services.”

Koch Business Solutions was established to support the CEO’s transformation imperative. “The CEO’s transformation imperative was really a call to action, recognising that if we don’t continue to improve and modernise how we run our businesses, we will begin to fall behind,” says Hoag. “My team was one of many across the enterprise that was spawned out of this effort. Our role really was preparing our core infrastructure and technology solutions to be ready for the digital transformation of the business.”

Given the need to support digitisation, Hoag says that to enable Koch businesses to gather data and build technology into connected products and services, the global network needed updating as the existing one was inadequate. “Approximately 80% of our sites had less than 10Mbps of bandwidth, and a good number of our sites had ageing or completely outdated networks,” he says.

While the amount of bandwidth needed for different regions and business units depends on the use case, Hoag says: “We were artificially stifling some of those things within our businesses as we began to expand that bandwidth.”

By separating the datacentre from the network, he says the business had more flexibility to develop new products and services. This meant making a decision about what workloads to migrate to the cloud and what would stay on-premise.

“As we continued down this path, we found that a lot of capabilities were better served either in the cloud or locally, at the sites themselves. Increasing bandwidth really was the foundational launchpad for the businesses to start to experiment with baking technology into their products and services.”

As such, upgrading the global wide-area network (WAN) became an enabler for the businesses, as Hoag explains: “When we talked with our line of business, CIOs and CTO, everybody universally felt that the WAN upgrade was a foundational need for the business.

“We wanted to reduce our datacentre footprint and push workloads towards the cloud, but we still needed private connectivity for our WAN. So, basically, the cloud needed to be part of our WAN, and internet connectivity isn’t always good for that.”

The first step on the journey was to implement a global software-defined wide-area network (SD-WAN). Hoag’s choice of partner was Viptela, which was later acquired by Cisco.

The SD-WAN deployment enabled a step change in network performance – yielding a sevenfold increase in bandwidth across 500 locations and implementing direct internet access at most of those sites, as well as improved wired and wireless connectivity at Koch’s manufacturing facilities.

Moving to networking as a service

While the team established bandwidth targets to measure success, Hoag says it decided not to set a target for bandwidth across the businesses. Instead, it assessed the opportunities that increased bandwidth would offer Koch businesses.

“We found that the move to the internet over the likes of MPLS [multi-protocol label switching] networking, and Koch businesses moving to the cloud for flexibility, were very well married together,” he says.

Hoag says the company then started using AWS Direct Connect from Amazon Web Services (AWS) for high-speed, low-latency connectivity from its datacentres. However, he says it was “still very much rooted in our datacentres from a user traffic and an overall business traffic perspective”.

“We found that the move to the internet over the likes of MPLS networking, and Koch businesses moving to the cloud for flexibility, were very well married together”

Matt Hoag, Koch Business Solutions

The next step involved virtualising the whole connectivity layer and pushing it into the AWS cloud, which would enable remote sites to connect over SD-WANs. This, he says, required “a lot of heavy engineering”. In fact, it took the company 18 months to build out its cloud connectivity.

Due to the way Koch is set up, Hoag says it was necessary to run multiple WANs and replicate infrastructure for each Koch company. “As we start to dive into multicloud, we are facing that same effort again, but also having to learn [to implement SD-WANs] in a new cloud. Not only is cloud networking different from traditional networking, every cloud’s networking is different. That’s where we ran into the problem of, ‘OK, so do we have to replicate this thing again?’.

“We had a vision for network as a service, and that was ultimately where we wanted to go, because while we were on this transformation, really modernising our infrastructure, we knew we were too slow for the business.”

The company needed a fast way to deploy cloud networking. For that, it selected Alkira, a startup founded by the team behind Viptela. The technology developed by Alkira offers cloud area networking as a service, reducing the time it took to connect Koch businesses to the cloud from months to days. 

When asked about how he weighed up the risks of going with Alkira, which was only established in 2018, Hoag says: “Without a doubt, the answer is, yes, it was a risk. But we’re going through a transformation, and the market is also going through a transformation. We decided that we really had to look for forward-leaning solutions to achieve our goals in a realistic timeframe.”

Overall, when looking at SD-WANs and cloud computing, Hoag believes data is the key to the challenge. As he points out, data continuously grows, and there is also the concept of data gravity. What this means, says Hoag, is that the larger the data pool grows, the higher the bandwidth requirements and the lower the latency level acceptable to enable the business to make the most of the stored information.

He admits that moving data was probably the hardest part of Koch’s network-as-a-service strategy. First, there are the bandwidth and latency questions to address. Then there is the challenge of migrating data without outages. However, the hardest part, in Hoag’s experience, is that it is extremely rare for one data store to be used in isolation by just one application.

“When you start to think about applications and moving them to the cloud, it’s like a spider web. Pick out one database, one server, one web front end, and there are so many things attached that now you either have to move everything at once or you still end up running bits on-premise and bits in the cloud.” 

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