ExpressRoute [Alone] is not the Silver Lining

The uptake in cloud services by South African enterprises – driven most recently by the aggressive adoption of Microsoft Office 365 and Azure – has created a new set of network challenges.

The success of Cloud has effectively broken the Internet. A typical story starts with the pursuit of commercial benefits through a move to cloud SaaS. The first application to move is usually email: a scenario that is common when deploying Office 365. The deployment is usually smooth, saves costs, and provides a good end-user experience. Based on the success of the email roll-out, the company then moves ahead with deploying real-time and file-sharing apps such as Skype for Business and Sharepoint. This is when it often becomes obvious that the WAN is not up to the job.

Most local companies have never had to build or manage a Global WAN and there is not always a full appreciation of the impact of distance and latency on mission-critical connections. Once it becomes clear that the existing network is insufficient, clients start looking for alternatives.

The obvious option is to simply upgrade one’s network, but upon realising that bandwidth increases in the order of ten times existing capacity are required, most CFOs insist on investigating alternatives.

Throwing bandwidth at the problem also results in diminishing returns and does not relate proportionally to application performance. We have seen a number of customers moving to Internet VPNs. Fully meshed, IP Sec networks across the Internet mimic a return (albeit over the Internet) to point-to-point tunnelling reminiscent of the old Frame Relay days.

These networks are complex and grow increasingly difficult to manage as sites are added. Most importantly, they still relay on the Internet for long-distance connections resulting in inconsistent, non-optimal application performance. To address this issue, Microsoft has launched ExpressRoute – a dedicated connection via a partnered telecommunications network directly to the Azure (and soon to come, Office 365) environment.

While ExpressRoute improves on Internet latencies, connections are still bound by the inherent limitations of long-distance TCP connections (maximum throughput = frame size divided by round-trip-time). It is for this reason that many ExpressRoute partners are still recommending to buyers that they couple their purchase with WAN optimisation – a technology which, if purchased in the form of an inline appliance, substantially increases the cost and management overhead of the solution.

So in addition to these growing requirements to overcome the ‘Internet as a cloud network’ problem, ExpressRoute addresses only one of many possible cloud applications. Most tech-savvy enterprises are making use of seven or more cloud applications and consider at least three different applications to be mission critical.

While ExpressRoute provides important relief for Azure users, it cannot be seen as the future of cloud deployments. Companies certainly can’t be expected to run direct connections to multiple cloud services, effectively conceding all the cost and flexibility benefits of the Internet to public cloud consumers.

What makes more sense is a segmented approach whereby one deploys Internet ‘first and last mile connections’ – i.e. many-to-many connections between multiple cloud services and multiple business sites.

Linking these local access points, cloud requires guaranteed global connections with advanced WAN optimisation to overcome the effects of distance, latency, and the limitations of the TCP protocol.

This is where global, SD-WANs (Software-defined Wide Area Networks) are starting to play a role: incorporating global L2 backbones, powerful TCP optimisation with compression, data de-duplication, and scalable last-mile Internet access.

While ExpressRoute might prove a welcome analgesic for large users of Microsoft Azure, Global SD-WANs are better candidates for cloud’s real silver lining.

Brett Steingo, Managing Director, SDN Africa

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The article was originally published by MyBroadband in partnership with SDN Africa, Aryaka’s exclusive reseller partner in Sub-Saharan Africa.