Comcast Business recently launched an SD-WAN offering for distributed enterprises based on its new, virtualized ActiveCoresm platform, which leverages the agility of software-defined networking to enable better application performance, centralized network policy management and more effective cost controls.
Comcast is the first cable company to introduce a carrier-grade, SD-WAN offering for multisite businesses, and is deploying it in tandem with its Gigabit broadband rollout.
In this interview, Kevin O’Toole, SVP for Products & Cloud Solutions at Comcast Business, discusses SD-WAN as a generational moment in networking, and the role of Gigabit broadband in supercharging its potential.
SDxCentral: There are many SD-WAN offerings out there. How does Comcast Business distinguish its SD-WAN offering from the competition?
Kevin O’Toole: There are three key dimensions to this: One, ours is a fully hosted and fully orchestrated solution. Two, we offer a unique, advanced digital experience. And three, this is launching at about the same time as our Gigabit Internet service, which is a radical new proposition.
On the first point, we’re not asking the customer to put the controllers or orchestration into their network themselves. We offer these from the cloud, via our carrier-grade, redundant infrastructure and virtualized ActiveCoresm platform. As such, we don’t require customers to make a massive investment in people and infrastructure in order to stand up these services. Also, Comcast operates in approximately 45 percent of the U.S., but our SD-WAN service is designed to be an over-the-top (OTT) offering. If a customer has locations that fall outside of the Comcast footprint, we help them orchestrate SD-WAN on top of third-party connectivity as well.
Our second dimension of differentiation is the digital experience. From the beginning, we said let software be software, and let’s use that flexibility to create a real-time digital experience with an eye to making the IT manager’s life easier and more seamless. We designed a web and mobile application insights engine that highlights the most important things happening in the network—no more hunting and pecking through data. The mobile app will surface, for example, anomalous performance data for a certain location. If you go and log on at your desk, you’ll have that same insight on your desktop, right at the top. From there, you can click and go directly to the issue and location that’s having the problem to find out more.
The third point is Gigabit broadband. SD-WAN was born to take advantage of broadband, and we are the largest broadband provider in the U.S. Soon, we’ll be the largest Gigabit provider as well, which will allow us to really showcase what the last mile can do. Gigabit speeds that are cost-effective will allow customers to take on business strategies they’ve never thought of before. In the past, businesses tied T1s together to get 3 Mb/s or maybe 6 Mb/s. Becoming Gigabit-powered changes everything.
Why should enterprises consider SD-WAN and how does broadband at the edge fit into the overall network architecture?
The reality of it is, every single day, bandwidth demand at the edge of the network is growing exponentially. That’s because companies are embracing video training, cloud apps, the Internet of Things (IoT) and the consumerization of IT, plus businesses want to bring in better WiFi, which in turn drives more traffic.
Many businesses provide those services using MPLS, because that’s the traditional access architecture and it’s what they know. But MPLS is running out of steam, and the reality is that you can’t support those applications on that size data connection.
To put it in perspective, most homes get 50 to 100 Mb/s—and that’s more than the typical bandwidth running to branch locations today. SD-WAN provides a secure vehicle that allows us to provide lots of bandwidth to these types of locations, cost-effectively, which allows them to adopt more bandwidth-intensive applications.
Comcast Business isn’t an MPLS provider, so it doesn’t have to worry about cannibalizing its MPLS revenues like some of the telecom providers. Can you talk about why this is an advantage?
We like to use the word “unconflicted.” We don’t have an MPLS revenue base to defend, and we don’t have a legacy solution that we need or want to take past its natural lifespan. As a result, we can listen to what customers require and build that in as we go.
When we started, we didn’t have a T1 business—we could just talk about broadband. At this transformational moment, it’s the same: We can just talk about what’s next, not what came before.
Businesses want to lean in and embrace SD-WAN in a responsible way, which means that MPLS isn’t going away tomorrow. There’s a lot of inertia in networks, and customers have existing contracts in some cases, and wariness about change in others. We think the best approach is to embrace a hybrid WAN strategy, where you implement broadband and SD-WAN for some applications, and then migrate others off of MPLS as you get more comfortable with the new architecture.
Businesses know that the cloud is going to allow competitors to be more nimble and take on new business productivity apps, and that they need to keep up with a networking strategy that allows that. But they can get after this without disrupting their operations.
Why is SD-WAN so important to Comcast Business and what should enterprises know about the benefits?
I think what enterprises of all sizes need to know is that the convergence of SD-WAN with Gigabit transport is a generational moment in data networking.
Over the last 30 years, the industry has seen the change from circuit to packet, packet to IP, fixed to mobile, edge to cloud and narrowband to broadband. People that have lived through those changes look back and can see that the whole industry transformed in each of those cases. This is another one of those moments.
Don’t think of this as an incremental technology. This is revolutionary. Gigabit speeds mean that businesses will be able to bring bandwidth to problems in a way they could never affordably do before. It allows them to buy cloud-based architecture options that are easier to manage and control, and they can take advantage of more and more applications that ride on top of that, saving CapEx and gaining business agility.
What are some of the other advantages of SD-WAN?
SD-WAN offers a radical simplification of how businesses build and manage their networks. Today in any back office you’ll see a pile of devices and appliances. Every one of them has a power source that can fail, and specific firmware with security patch requirements. It’s usually an environment where inconsistent configurations are the norm, and security vulnerabilities are rampant because things haven’t been updated.
It’s also a kind of tyranny of the boxes, because if you want to upgrade or change vendors, you have to rip and replace that hardware, reconfiguring it all, and you have to do that at every location. So, the upgrade cycle is really hampered by these physical realities, and it takes money and people to adequately navigate that complexity.
With SD-WAN, all of that goes away. You have a single box that’s basically just an off-the-shelf computer, what we call universal CPE. Through our platform, we simply push software out to that universal CPE, and we can automatically upgrade and provide security patches in a centralized way. You end up with dramatically lower capital requirement and OpEx, and dramatically simplified operations. And with the digital experience that we’ve pioneered, it’s even easier to run this.
Before launching a full commercial SD-WAN offer, Comcast Business conducted a beta trial. What did you learn from that experience?
I’ve been a bit overwhelmed by the number of companies that want to engage in the dialogue with us. I think we’ve seen such a positive reaction to our digital experience and the fully hosted and fully orchestrated environment that we offer because it’s a very timely conversation.
We were also reminded of the complexity of large networks and the deployment cycles that go along with that. We learned that we have to be tightly coordinated with their IT departments to fit with their timelines, and to be thoughtful of the methodologies of turn-up that they prefer to use. These businesses have mission-critical things running every day, so we really have to be hand-in-glove.
This is version one of a product that will have 100 versions; we see it as the beginning of something we’ll be doing over the next 20 years and beyond. We’ll be orchestrating more VNFs and refining the digital experience. We’ll also be listening to customers with really big ears and running an agile model of development—we recognized through the trial that there are plenty of things that could be possibilities in the future—but our customers will ultimately be the ones that will tell us where to go next.
About Kevin O’Toole
Kevin O’Toole serves as Senior Vice President of Product Management for Comcast Business. In this role, Kevin is responsible for all of Comcast Business’ data, voice, video & SaaS products.
Kevin is an original member of the Comcast Business senior leadership team, serving in various leadership roles since its inception in 2006 and helping to build the business unit to its present $5B scale. Prior to his current role, Kevin held the position of SVP & GM of New Business Solutions, leading the creating of Comcast Business Cloud Solutions environment and operations. A 20-year industry veteran, Kevin’s prior positions include leadership roles in sales, marketing, R&D, corporate strategy, and private equity.
Kevin holds a BS in Mathematics/Computer Science and a MS in Information Networking, both from Carnegie Mellon University.