The emergence of multi-cloud networking software

MCNS promises to deliver network visibility and unified management across multiple cloud environments

mainframe servers in the cloud

Multi-cloud networking software (MCNS), which is available from industry stalwarts like Cisco and VMware, as well as a slew of startups, is designed to address the challenge of how to safely and efficiently connect networks and applications across multiple public cloud environments.

Traditional approaches to network architecture and operations are untenable in today’s multi-cloud world, says Brian Casemore, vice president of research, datacenter and multi-cloud networking at IDC.

And the cloud service providers have come up short in their ability to effectively integrate multiple clouds, says Ron Howell, managing enterprise network architect at IT consulting firm Capgemini Americas. He says that each public cloud service tends to focus on its own cloud as if it were the only one an enterprise would ever need, which is far from the truth or reality. "This is where multi-cloud networking software adds value," Howell says.

What is multi-cloud networking software?

MCNS aims to ensure consistent networking governance, policy, security, and visibility across multiple cloud environments via a single point of management.

"Multi-cloud networking provides automated, policy-based networking that offers connectivity and network services for distributed workloads in and across multiple clouds," explains Casemore.

Enterprises currently address multi-cloud networking in various ways, Some organizations follow a do-it-yourself approach, often involving manual configuration of routers and virtual routers, Casemore says. That manual configuration is sometimes aided by scripting or open-source automation tools.

"Meanwhile, organizations that have adopted a datacenter software-defined networking (SDN) platform often look to extend SDN policy and control to cloud environments," he adds.

MCNS, whether supplied as network software or as a service based on underlying software, is declaratively managed, on demand, elastically scalable, highly available, and secure. "In other words, it conforms to the core attributes of cloud environments," Casemore states.

Who offers multi-cloud networking software?

Gartner's Andrew Lerner has identified several vendors, including Alkira, Aviatrix, Arista, Cisco, F5 Networks and VMWare as active MCNS market participants. IDC has recognized other market players such as Prosimo, Arrcus, Isovalent, and Nethopper.io.

Vendors are offering software that delivers both advanced capabilities for single cloud environments, and operational consistency for multi-cloud operations. "These new cloud software products both replace native cloud software and leverage native cloud provider APIs to meet enterprise requirements," says Rod Stuhlmuller, Aviatrix's vice president of strategic customer and analyst relations.

What are the benefits of multi-cloud networking software?

Enterprises are adopting multi-cloud architectures because it allows them to distribute workloads across various cloud services providers, shared colocation facilities, and on-premises data centers by establishing common foundational baselines in the underlying services, says Joe Hielscher, product manager, cloud networking software, with Arista Networks.

Here are some of the benefits of multi-cloud networking software:

  • Speed: MCNS promises to dramatically accelerate cloud deployments by eliminating the need to juggle multiple networking silos, all with different tooling and capabilities. "With the right MCNS, organizations no longer require specialized cloud knowledge or have to employ error-prone manual configurations to unify their clouds," says Amir Khan, Alkira's founder and CEO. "As a result, work that used to take months to complete can instead be done in hours."
  • Performance: According to Casemore, MCNS offerings include abstractions or low-code optimizations that are designed to simplify networking in and across disparate clouds. The abstractions mitigate the complexity, operational burden, and associated costs of contending with and managing discrete and disconnected cloud APIs and cloud-specific network constructs. "These solutions can also help optimize network performance in and across clouds," he notes.
  • Staffing Costs: Having a consistent network and security infrastructure spanning an entire multi-cloud environment promises to free enterprises from having to recruit, hire, build, and retain teams with expertise in disparate cloud environments. "Multi-cloud networking software makes building and managing network and security the same in every public cloud environment," Stuhlmuller explains. "In large enterprises, this benefit alone can translate to a reduction of millions of dollars in human resource costs annually."
  • Operational Efficiency: MCNS also promises to bridge the gap that currently exists between NetOps, DevOps, and SecOps teams by providing a common controller and management framework to discover cloud application intent and then implement it across the cloud and non-cloud infrastructure in a secure and seamless manner, says JL Valente, vice president, product management, enterprise routing and SD-WAN, at Cisco. "MCNS should enable organizations to cultivate collaboration between DevOps and NetOps teams for operational efficiency and also drive faster application deployment," he notes.

Is multi-cloud networking software right for your enterprise?

Valente believes that MCNS will be most beneficial to organizations that have migrated or are migrating their workloads to one or more clouds, that build their own cloud native applications, and are looking for a consistent experience and architecture across cloud environments.

Arista’s Hielscher sees MCNS primarily attracting large global enterprises. "However, many medium enterprises in industry verticals such as healthcare, state and local governments, education, and federal government institutions have unique requirements for an MCNS solution as well," he says. "Since smaller enterprises can generally self-select a single public cloud for their applications, MCNS is not as common a reality for them as it is for the larger or more complex enterprises."

Evaluating the leading vendors by features, compatibility, and ease of use is step one for any enterprise considering MCNS adoption. "Leaders should select their top two or three MCNS vendors and move on to the second round, where deeper comparison testing should be performed," Howell advises.

What are the adoption challenges?

Contrary to general perception, Hielscher argues that many enterprises do not voluntarily choose to operate within a multi-cloud environment. In many cases, the environment is thrust upon them through a merger, acquisition, or an isolated departmental choice that preceded a decision to consolidate architectures.

"This results in organizational gaps, skill-set gaps, and contractual and spending overlaps," he explains. "As with any IT strategy, the first step is to establish which goals are to be addressed and the timeframes to address them in."

Potential adopters should be prepared to spend both time and money when evaluating and comparing MCNS products. "For example, organizations should plan costs associated with staffing a team of engineers to see them through the evaluation process," Howell says.

While virtually all large cloud-focused enterprises, and many smaller organizations, can benefit from the right MCNS, it's important to keep an eye on service and the bottom line. "Benefits to the enterprise must be greater than the cost of the solution," Howell warns.

While few observers doubt MCNS's long-term benefits, getting the software up and running can be both costly and time consuming. Training costs, for instance, need to be factored into the purchasing decision. "The complexity of the [MCNS] solution will require the enterprise to re-train their teams to support the product," Howell says.

Casemore warns that multi-cloud architectures typically require extensive modernization of the entire IT infrastructure, including the network, "to ensure adequate end-to-end performance and security."

Adopters taking a do-it-yourself approach to MCNS and cloud networking in general must possess a deep understanding of the nuances that lurk inside each cloud provider, Khan cautions. "Unfortunately, on-prem networking is very different from cloud networking, so your existing networking resources are often not equipped to set up cloud or multi-cloud networks," he notes.

Adding to the challenge is the fact that hiring cloud experts can be exceptionally difficult in the current labor market. "If you're lucky and can hire an AWS networking expert, for example, you must realize that they won't be able to apply the same skills to GCP or Azure," Khan explains. "Each of the cloud providers have different capabilities, different terms, and different ways of doing things."

Additionally, enterprises pursuing multi-cloud often encounter a range of visibility challenges, including intermittent or partial visibility across clouds, leading to the potential for blind spots. "To speed the process of troubleshooting and remediation, and to help IT operations achieve a more proactive approach to availability and performance, multi-cloud networks must possess pervasive, real-time visibility and observability," Casemore says. "This also ensures that control is not sacrificed for agility."

Perhaps the biggest challenge facing potential MCNS adopters is the tendency for cloud service providers to hold onto their customers for dear life, taking the position that their native services provide the absolute best approach and enterprise leaders' natural tendency to believe them. "This leads enterprises down a path that creates less than optimal network and security architectures that bind them to a single public cloud provider," Stuhlmuller says.

Casemore advises that enterprises plan as far ahead as possible to ensure that their multi-cloud networks will align with and facilitate digital-business outcomes, "allowing the network to assume its place as an integral element of modern digital infrastructure."

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