Cisco takes its first steps toward network-as-a-service

Cisco unwraps Cisco Plus, a NaaS offering focused on security and hybrid cloud for now

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Cisco has taken a big step forward with its first network-as-a-service offering that ultimately will let customers buy enterprise-network hardware and software components on an as-needed basis.

The company announced the service, called Cisco Plus,  at its virtual Cisco Live 2021! conference, telling customers its NaaS will offer best-in-class networking, security, compute, storage, and applications with unified subscriptions that promise to be simple to use.

Now see: Who’s selling SASE, and what do you get?

“Network-as-a-service delivery is a great option for businesses wanting to shift to a cloud operating model that makes its easy and simple to buy and consume the necessary components to improve and grow their businesses,” said James Mobley, senior vice president and general manager of Cisco’s Network Services Business Unit.

While Cisco plans in the next few years to introduce what will likely be myriad service options under Cisco Plus, for now it is introducing two flavors. The first, Cisco Plus Hybrid Cloud, includes the company’s data-center compute, networking, and storage portfolio in addition to third-party software and storage components all controlled by the company’s Intersight cloud management package.  Customers can choose the level of services they want for planning, design and installation Mobley said.

Cisco Plus Hybrid Cloud, which will be available mid-year, offers pay-as-you-go with delivery of orders within 14 days, Mobley said.

“With Cisco Plus, it’s taking NaaS and its hybrid cloud offerings to the next level by including hardware and the full portfolio into this as-a-service offer, that provides cloud-like simplicity and flexibility of consumption on one end, and on the other, it provides a rich set of intelligent operational enhancements that go a long way to deliver enhanced IT experiences and outcomes” said Rohit Mehra, vice president, Network Infrastructure services at IDC. “This has also been made possible by increased embedded intelligence now available in network and IT hardware and software, coupled with advanced telemetry options in many of these platforms.”

The second Cisco Plus service, which did not have an availability timeframe, will feature the company’s secure access services edge (SASE) components, such as Cisco’s SD-WAN and cloud-based Umbrella security software. 

Security-as-a-service models offer many advantages for organizations including offloading the maintenance of hundreds or thousands of firewalls and other security appliances, said Neil Anderson, senior director of network solutions at World Wide Technology, a technology and supply-chain services provider.

“With SASE, enterprises can consume that from the cloud and let someone else take care of the toil, which frees up their security team to focus on threat vectors and prevention,” he said.

While the strategy behind delivering network components as a cloud-based service has been around for a few years, it is not a widely used enterprise-customer strategy. Cisco’s entry into NaaS is likely to change that notion significantly.

“Cisco has been on this journey for a few years now—starting with providing subscription-based offers for many of its software solutions—while working on simplifying and enriching the licensing and consumption experience,” Mehra said. “Customers understand and have embraced cloud-like IT-consumption models that are typically subscription-based and provide scalability and other on-demand capabilities,” Mehra said. 

But the industry does need to play an educational role in increasing familiarity in this segment. For example, terms such as NaaS are still largely new in an enterprise context to most IT practitioners, although they do understand that operational simplicity and flexibility will be crucial to their success in digital transformation, Mehra said.

While NaaS might be relatively new to some customers, others are already utilizing it, other experts said. For remote-access, customers are more than ready, and it’s starting to go mainstream, Anderson said.

“For connectivity to the cloud edge, it’s coming very soon, and the adoption of SASE models for security will accelerate the demand for NaaS services,” he said. “NaaS in the campus will probably take a bit longer, but we see that coming. Some customer segments, like retail, are probably ready today, while others like global financials will take longer to adopt.”

Networking is no longer just about connecting things within private networks because there is a world of networking to and between clouds to account for, Anderson said.  “For example, with private WANsI typically networked my sites to my other sites like a private data center. Now, I need to network my sites to cloud services, and I may be doing so with public-internet services,” Anderson said.

NaaS for the campus network is another use case on the horizon, he said. “To build campus networks in the past, we had access, distribution, and core layers, and the core spanned my campus and sometimes private data center. It was designed to aggregate traffic from users into my private data center,” Anderson said. “Today, much of the traffic is heading to the cloud—Office 365 is the tipping point for many organizations—so building a core network may not be necessary. I see a new architecture emerging where the goal is to tie each site, including each building of a campus, to the internet directly to connect users to cloud and enable traffic to [reach] the cloud sooner, ultimately improving the user experience.”

Naas is by no means a slam dunk, and there will be challenges for enterprises that use it. “For medium to large organizations with significant investments in existing remote, branch, campus and data-center networking network-security infrastructure, migrating to NaaS will be difficult and time consuming. Multi-vendor environments will further complicate the matter,” stated principal analyst at Doyle Research, Lee Doyle in a Network World column this week.

Widespread adoption of enterprise NaaS will occur slowly over the next five to 10 years Doyle stated. The best fits for adoption now are greenfield sites, temporary locations, and small branch offices. NaaS offerings will also be attractive to network remote, home and mobile workers who need secure, reliable application performance. Enterprise networks with the requirement to move traffic at high speeds on-site would be more difficult to deliver as a service, Doyle stated.

Key challenges, besides understanding of what NaaS will help deliver, face IT practitioners who are the potential customers as well as vendors and service providers, Mehra said. 

“On the customer aspects, what we’ll need to watch will be the changing role of IT and how it can optimally consume these technologies as a service while retaining overall control of its IT environment,” Mehra said. “On the provider side, visibility across issues such as operational flexibility and simplicity will be one area to consider, while another will be the direction the industry takes on what metered-service options it makes available for its clients.”

The challenges depend on the industry and security requirements, WWT’s Anderson said. “If the organization is in a heavily regulated industry like financial, healthcare, or federal [government], one challenge will be trusting the integrated security needed,” Anderson said. “For example, there would be fewer challenges to enable everyone to connect to the internet, akin to a giant hotspot, but to adopt more of a zero-trust model, where you may need to securely isolate sessions and devices from one another, will require building trust in some integrated security technologies.”

“What Cisco is doing is very interesting because what NaaS is out there has been limited to mostly the WAN world but once you start targeting the enterprise that’s where the challenges are because customers still have to move bits and everything can’t be in the cloud,” Doyle said. “Instead of being in the first inning of a game we are really just now defining the rules of the game, so there’s a long way to go.”

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