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Software-Defined Access: Networking, But Not As You Know It

Ground-breaking is an overused term in IT, but every now and again something comes along that justifies it. It is quickly becoming apparent that Cisco’s developments in software-defined access (SD-Access) are just that – ground breaking.

Downtime and The Productivity Equation

Imagine you’re managing IT for an organisation with many branch offices in cities and regional centres around Australia. The network goes down overnight in one of those branch offices, and the 80 staff all start calling and emailing the support desk. The IT team gets to work, interrupted by constant enquiries. If you’re lucky, a solution can be found remotely, and everyone gets back to their day’s work – but if it even takes half an hour, there’s a productivity loss equivalent to one full-time week. Worse, you may have lost customers.

Self-Healing in the Network’s DNA

What if, when there’s a problem with the network, it recognises it automatically, finds a solution, and alerts the IT team – all before anyone else notices? For anyone who has spent a significant proportion of their working life wrangling networks, solving problems, and dealing with those 80 phone calls at once, it sounds improbable – but Cisco just made it happen. In an industry first, they’ve created an intent-based solution based on Cisco’s Digital Network Architecture (DNA). It is a complete game-changer – and self-healing is only a part of it.

How it Works

SD-Access shifts the way that networks are built and managed. Put simply, it does this by separating network functions from hardware, providing a software layer that manages existing Cisco devices from a single point. SD-Access helps to ensure policy consistency throughout the network, no matter how geographically diverse. Existing Cisco investment is protected, with no new devices needed.

Reduced administration burden was a key objective for Cisco’s R&D team, and it is fair to say they have delivered. SD-Access allows network administrators to create business outcomes rapidly. User mobility, IoT integration, cloud integration – whatever the business needs, aligning this more fluid network is simple.

Designing the SD-Access Network

One of the most profound changes is in the way networks can be designed – and redesigned – with a geographical lapse. If, for example, the network administrator is in Sydney, but wants to introduce new networking devices in offices in Dubbo, Townsville and Broome, the project would previously have been logistically complex. Devices would have been shipped to Sydney, unpacked, and the administrator would spend some time preparing the machines.

Now, the devices in this situation can be shipped directly to their end destination, plugged in by non-technical staff, and the network applies all the relevant policies. There’s no need for any special IT skills – saving the need to call out local engineers. New branches can be added and changes made to align with business needs. SD-Access simplifies the whole process of deployment, taking best practice, world-class configuration and provision of service, and automates it with minimal effort required – and does it 67% faster than using traditional methods.

Policy-Based Excellence

Instead of setting policies according to network capability, administrators can set policy that is shaped by business demands. They can, for example, segment users individually or by groups, so that wherever they are, they can access the same applications. Mobile users who move between sites and work on-the-go can have consistency, all automated by the SD-Access network.
Performance, always a challenge in traditional networking scenarios, is aided by the ability to set policies regarding application priority. The CEO won’t experience Office 365 slowdown because a group of users are accessing Instagram. Administrators define rules as they build the business outcomes they seek.

Assurance

Anyone who has managed networks knows that, of all things, visibility is the most critical. If you know exactly what is happening where, you are positioned to respond to problems – but the full picture can be elusive. The detailed insights on a single SD-Access dashboard are phenomenal.

Because the network is constantly learning, when a fault is detected in one place, policies are automatically pushed out to the entire network without intervention, so the problem is not replicated elsewhere. No troubleshooting required! This has been a real highlight for those involved in the early proof of concepts at sites around the world.

Security and the IoT

For CIOs, staying ahead of security threats while digitising the business makes for an unenviable task. Digital transformation is imperative for businesses to stay relevant, but every new device in the internet of things (IoT) represents an opportunity for hackers. That opportunity shrinks, however, when it is protected by the smarts that SD-Access offers. IoT devices are incorporated safely, with policies automatically attached that define access levels. Attempted intrusion is contained.

If a security breach occurs at the edge, the network detects the breach when it happens. It automatically communicates with Cisco’s huge, central TALOS database. Information about the threat is then communicated to Cisco devices worldwide, with a policy automatically created to prevent intrusion. This cohesive intelligence makes life a lot easier for those with strong security needs who are charged with safeguarding business and customer information.

Innovation on a Shrinking Budget

Delivering innovation and digital transformation is no mean feat on a flat or shrinking IT budget. Because SD-Access doesn’t require Cisco devices to be replaced, there is no need to go cap-in-hand to finance to seek funds for new devices. Getting a lot more, and facilitating digitisation, doesn’t have to come with a huge price tag, and the savings in time, money and resources makes budgeting that much easier. Customers trialling SD-Access cut operating expenses by 61%, and what we’re seeing so far backs that up. The seismic shift in the network is matched by a drastic change for the better in costs.


If you are keen to learn more about the latest Cisco technology and ready to change the way you see networking contact me for the low-down on SD-Access.

Tags: Cisco, Cisco Digital Network Architecture (Cisco DNA), Digital Network Architecture, Internet of Things (IoT), Network Security, Software-defined Access (SD-Access)

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