LAS VEGAS — Frustrated that branch-office gear has stagnated for 16 years, a Columbia Sportswear manager stitched together elements of cloud and software-defined wide-area networking (SD-WAN) to create what he calls vBranch.
John Spiegel, who manages the retail chain’s global IT communications, managed to get vBranch up and running in one Columbia Sportswear store in June, as a limited-production pilot, as he told the audience at the future:net conference.
Now if he can only get his executives to buy in on it.
Spiegel’s beef is that the branch office has become a technology backwater. Hardware upgrades are controlled by the finance department; if there’s money to spare, you might get a faster router this year.
More importantly, the arrival of Wi-Fi circa 1999 was, by his reckoning, the last major networking innovation to reach the branch. In recent years, plenty of innovations have grown up around the software-defined data center (SDDC), but out at the branch office, “we still purchase dumb routers that cost $5,000,” he said.
What he wanted was an architecture built like a cloud: application-aware, automated, and built on generic, multipurpose hardware. Cheaper would be nice as well, he said.
So, Spiegel assembled a few vendors’ gear to create vBranch. VMware’s NSX handles the in-branch networking. Columbia also takes advantage of NSX‘s distributed firewall, augmenting it with Palo Alto Networks’ virtual firewall.
CloudGenix came into the picture later, as Spiegel started investigating his WAN options. That company’s SD-WAN gives the branch an automated way to pick among different paths to the Internet — using the T1 line or an LTE connection, for instance.
The Real Problem
VBranch is a work in progress. After his talk, Spiegel commented that the choice of server actually seems to matter, for instance. And there’s still a question of how to connect in-store devices to the vBranch server. The idea of just using iPhones hasn’t panned out because of Wi-Fi dead spots, but Spiegel is still hoping to find a purely wireless option.
The real barrier to deploying something like vBranch, though, lies with people.
Spiegel has discussed elements of vBranch before — at VMworld in 2015, for instance. What’s different now is that he’s gotten to see what happens when something like vBranch actually comes to life.
“I thought I would be the pied piper of virtual branch, but nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, I’ve had to fight tooth and nail to keep this project alive.” Not everyone in the company is on board with the idea, and incumbent vendors have “tried all sorts of tricks to stop this project,” he said, without elaborating.
If the idea flies, it will be less because of the technology and more because of the potential cost savings, Spiegel believes.
By his estimates, vBranch lowers capex and opex, combined, by 30 to 50 percent compared with the usual branch-office equipment. Other benefits have included vastly improved visibility into the network and the reduction of installation and recovery times by 75 percent, he said.