NaaS: Network-as-a-service is the future, but it’s got challenges

NaaS offers flexibility, rapid provisioning, and predictable costs, but needs to resolve issue of vendor lock-in and service-level.

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As-a-service offerings have been around for more than 10 years with roots that are decades older than that, and now this ever-expanding category of service offerings includes enterprise network-as-a-service.

NaaS enables enterprises to outsource network functionality at network Layers 4-7—such as software-defined WAN (SD-WAN) and application delivery controller (ADC)—as well as Layers 1-3, which includes switches and routers.

Full adoption of NaaS is still in its early days because most enterprise network functions require physical hardware to transport data to and from endpoints and the data center or internet. That is a challenge to deliver as a service. The Layer 4-7 functions are already available in a cloud-delivery model.

Over the next five-plus years, IT teams will increasingly adopt NaaS as suppliers deliver hybrid offerings that include software, cloud intelligence, and the option for management of on-premises hardware.

These services will be subscription-based and pay as you go, making networking more of an operational cost than a capital cost. They will provide centralized management with the ability to easily add and remove network and security functionality.

The services will enable outsourcing of enterprise network operations to providers that may include vendors and their partners who provide service level agreements (SLA) to define uptime and problem-resolution guarantees.

Right now, NaaS is best suited to organizations with a lean-IT philosophy and a need to provide networking support for at-home and branch locations. The available options provide overlay networking services that can be enabled and delivered in the cloud with minimal or no management of on-premises hardware. These include:

NaaS has many upsides that are common to other as-a-service offerings, and these include significant flexibility. NaaS enables rapid provisioning of new sites and new services as well as the elasticity to readily scale up and scale down as demand changes. It is similarly suited to rapidly add and delete network services.

As with software-as-a-service and infrastructure-as-a-service, NaaS’s underlying software is likely to be routinely updated to the latest and most secure versions, and, since it is cloud-optimized, its management driven by artificial intelligence to deliver uptime guarantees and aid with problem resolution.

NaaS makes it possible to moving significant CAPEX to OPEX, allows outsourcing some or all of the resources needed to network a given location or category of users, such as those working from home.

And enterprise NaaS is not without its challenges.

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.

Because NaaS is enabled by fast, low-latency, internet services, any interruption in WAN connectivity may seriously degrade or disable enterprise network operations. Because the service is relatively new, NaaS pricing is still uncertain, so business leaders may find that per-year operational costs may be more than they budgeted for.

And they will want to address a set of important issues, among them SLAs. These agreements should address what happens when the network is down or degraded and how quickly full service will be restored. The compensation enterprise customers receive for these issues should include lost revenues, poor customer service and loss of employee productivity.

Before they buy into NaaS, Enterprise customers should determine how easy it is to customize the offering to their individual needs and how easy or difficult it is to adapt the services as their needs change.

Because they have outsourced part of their networks, NaaS customers need to consider what they will do when their contract expires. These organizations won’t own their networks in the traditional sense, so if they want to switch to different providers, the process of switchover could become complicated, as would contract negotiations.

NaaS may be ideal for businesses with a recent population of at-home employees or new branch offices, but it’s not for everybody. Migrating a large enterprise campus or data-center network to NaaS will be extremely challenging. It is unlikely that NaaS suppliers will be able to support multi-vendor networks, and that would present the possibility of vendor lock-in for enterprise organizations that want to wholeheartedly buy into NaaS.

Adopting NaaS will require a transition from the current enterprise model where highly trained in-house network engineers operate all the complex networking hardware. While most enterprises will continue to run sophisticated physical networks on-premises, they will add cloud-based intelligence including MANO and security.

Beyond the impact of NaaS on enterprise networks, it will have a significant impact on the structure of the networking industry including channel partners that sell hardware, software and services. Suppliers have a lot of work to do educate these partners and to buy into their NaaS offerings. They’ll have to answer how the channel can continue to deliver value-added services and how easy it will be to customize NaaS offerings.

Widespread adoption of enterprise NaaS will occur slowly over the next five to 10 years.  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 location would be more difficult to deliver as a service. 

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