The New Proving Ground for Cloud Networking
In this article
Jon Duren is responsible for strategy and operations in the Network Solutions Practice at World Wide Technology (WWT). Part of his job is educating WWT customers about the latest trends in networking.
In late 2017, a new name started popping up in almost every executive briefing related to data center networking. Customers were eager for information about a company that until then had garnered little interest. The company was Equinix.
"It was like somebody flipped a light switch," Duren said. "Overnight 100 percent of our customers were asking us, 'Are you doing anything with Equinix?'"
What Duren was observing was fallout from the cloud-first frenzy that had started a few years earlier.
"When the cloud really got hot and viable in late 2014, all of our large customers started to adopt the cloud rapidly, and then they began to experience challenges with their deployments," Duren said.
The first challenge arose as organizations were putting application workloads in the cloud but keeping application data in private data centers. Branch users were traversing the corporate network and using centralized internet access to reach business-critical applications in the cloud. The result was maddening latency — think inordinately long load times for Microsoft Office 365 applications and poor meeting experiences in platforms like Cisco Webex.
A key design factor that customers overlooked was the importance of proximity. Data from cloud applications had to live close to the cloud to meet performance requirements. While this may seem obvious, especially to a networking engineer, networking was frequently absent at the cloud-first table. Cloud buying decisions, for the most part, were being driven by application development teams.
Another realization started occurring. It was becoming clear to customers that one cloud wasn't going to solve the needs of large enterprises. Amazon Web Services (AWS) might be perfect for developing new applications at speed and scale, but corporate applications that needed to be authenticated by Active Directory would be best served living in Microsoft Azure. Likewise, Google Cloud Platform might hold appeal for business units experimenting with analytics, AI and machine learning.
By late 2017, cloud-first started had evolved into multicloud, and the need to redesign network architecture could no longer be ignored. At the time, WWT was doing little with Equinix but that was about to change.
WWT's would spend the next several months meeting frequently with Equinix to understand the company's value proposition and share their own. As the companies learned more about one another, a strategic partnership formed.
Neil Anderson, director of WWT's Network Solution Practice, was on the ground floor of the partnership.
"Our customers are looking to re-architect their enterprise to this global connectivity model, and Equinix is the best positioned to be the critical cross-connect between organizations and multicloud," Anderson said. "They have direct peering into every cloud provider and every SaaS (software as a service) provider. It has taken years to build, and that's a pretty tough thing to replicate."
Equinix isn't new. The colocation company started in 1997 and has been a market leader in the space ever since. Major service providers have long relied on the company's cross-connects. When cloud and SaaS providers came on the scene, it made sense for them to build their data centers next to Equinix facilities.
A new dynamic emerged. Enterprise IT wanted to take advantage of the speed Equinix can provide given their proximity to multiple clouds. But while Equinix was comfortable selling powerful connections, they weren't used to the complexities of connecting IT architectures.
WWT's traditional IT partners — companies like Cisco, NetApp, F5 and Dell EMC — were at the opposite end of the spectrum. They knew enterprise IT architectures but needed help moving customers to a multicloud architecture.
"Equinix and WWT made the perfect marriage," Anderson said.
The WWT Advanced Technology Center (ATC) is one of the company's most strategic differentiators and largest investments. What started as a single data center lab has evolved into multiple buildings hosting hundreds of IT racks at the company's headquarters in St. Louis that can be accessed anytime, anywhere.
With more than $300 million of the latest IT infrastructure, best-in-class testing tools, public cloud integration and hooks into major SaaS providers, the ATC has seen 10,000 customer engagements since opening in 2013.
Customers take advantage of more than 600 pre-built capabilities that include demonstrations, learning environments and guided training. They also benefit from on-demand sandboxes where they can go "off script" and explore the technologies that are most strategic to their organizations.
Additionally, the ATC is used heavily to perform proofs of concept dramatically faster and more securely than if customers were to perform them on their own. Customers use the ATC to benchmark new technology, see how competing technologies stack up, trial run migrations and upgrades away from production environments, and validate proposed architectural designs.
"We knew we needed to extend the ATC into Equinix," Anderson said. "It was the best way we were going to show customers tangible before-and-after benefits of embracing colocation architectures. Other companies show slides. We do it for real in the ATC."
After receiving executive sign-off for extending the ATC into Equinix last fall, WWT rented a cage in Equinix's data center in Ashburn, VA. The WWT ATC team then flew to Ashburn to set up five cabinets that were shipped from St. Louis to give the cage the core infrastructure and connectivity options to run demonstrations and perform proofs of concept.
From there, WWT purchased a 10 Gigabit MPLS circuit to run directly from the ATC in St. Louis to the Equinix cage. Duren estimates that between infrastructure and connectivity, the setup represents a nearly $250,000 investment. On top of the monetary investment, he estimates the effort took about 500 people hours.
"Equinix and colocation span our entire portfolio," Duren said. "There was a ton of coordination between our ATC engineers and the leadership in our Global Engineering Team to determine how we could maximize the Equinix extension to the ATC from a networking perspective, compute perspective, storage perspective, security perspective, etc."
Based on the needs of WWT customers, Duren said it was an investment the company couldn't afford not to make. How else could customers experience the true value of proximity?
"If you're in St. Louis connecting to assets that are in Ashburn versus you're right next door in Ashburn connecting to something across the street, the performance of that proximity is a significant difference, sometimes by an order of magnitude," Duren said. "That's what our customers are looking for. They want that performance, and they want the cloud connectivity."
To Duren's knowledge there are no other partners outside of WWT that can truly give customers a place where they can see how their network will perform and how their data center will change by moving to a cloud edge colocation architecture. Prior to the ATC expansion, the only thing customers had to go off when making a colocation buying decision was sales and marketing collateral.
"They just have to rely on what they're being told and then go out and make a buying decision," Duren said. "We can help make these decisions more data driven and validated rather than trial and error."
WWT's connection between the ATC and the Equinix cage went live in April 2019. Through Equinix's cloud exchange the cage has connections to Azure and AWS with plans to connect to Google Cloud Platform (GCP) and Oracle Cloud.
Currently there are three hardware-based solutions up and running out of the cage that can support many proofs of concepts and proofs of value as an extension of the ATC. From this platform, WWT can also demonstrate many of the newer network virtualization and software-defined solutions that are leading the market.
These solutions are just the beginning for WWT but are already showcasing many cloud edge use cases.
F5 BIG-IP i5800 for application security for multicloud
Customers can explore how an F5 deployment at the cloud edge can provide consistent application security across multiple applications deployed across multiple clouds. The F5 i5800 is demonstrating high-performance web application firewall protection for web services running in AWS and Azure.
NetApp AFF A300 for backup and cloud storage
Customers can see how the NetApp AFF A300 can be used as a backup target for inexpensive and efficient backup of data from mission-critical applications running in the cloud. Any failure in cloud storage is no longer a concern with data being backed up effortlessly to storage hardware in Equinix.
Customers can also see the benefits of storing databases on the NetApp AFF A330 and how cloud applications related to customer experience especially can access databases with near zero latency. Cloud storage in Equinix can also provide compliance with regulations that require consumer data to be stored outside the cloud or kept inside geographies.
Cisco Cloud OnRamp virtual routing
Customers can see the benefits of running multiple virtual routers, firewalls and SD-WAN instances on a purpose-built network function virtualization (NFV) platform.
When planning for a colocation space, customers are looking for solutions that require less frequent hardware touches, according to Duren.
"Building on their experience with cloud virtualization, these customers want to avoid a stack of physical networking devices in their space," Duren said. "They just want the benefits and flexibility that the virtual instances can provide, such as with the Cisco CSR virtual router."
By having Cloud OnRamp for CoLocation in the cage, WWT can spin up a CSRv, or a software version of a Palo Alto or Cisco ASA firewall in a matter of minutes.
"With virtual technologies, we can demonstrate a very robust cloud-edge design very quickly," Duren said.
Customers can also see the direct benefits of extending their SD-WAN fabric into the cloud edge to provide the best user experience to SaaS and cloud-hosted applications that are most critical to their organizations.
WWT is just getting started with the ATC extended into Equinix. As with the main ATC campus in St. Louis, WWT will be bringing more hardware and software into the cage based on customer use cases and demand. In addition to hardware, the cage will be invaluable in demonstrating how cloud and SaaS applications function when supported by a cloud-edge network architecture.
For Anderson, demonstrating the performance of Equinix and accelerating colocation architectures is his number one priority.
"I've told my teams that I don't want these to be blinky-light demos," Anderson said. "We want to show customers the difference in application performance you get when using Equinix versus legacy architectures. We want to show them their Webex performance before and after, their Oracle performance before and after, their O365 performance before and after, etc."
Colocation and figuring for a multicloud world are still new for enterprise IT. The first step, according to Anderson and Duren, is getting customers to understand the proximity advantages of moving to Equinix.
But Equinix offers another huge advantage outside of proximity to public cloud and SaaS providers. Because so many large organizations have a presence in Equinix, customers can inter-connect to their business partners for faster and more affordable transactions.
"That's what's sort of the cherry on top of the milkshake for our customers," Duren said. "Once they get to Equinix they realize that 90 percent of the organizations that they do business with on a day-to-day basis are moving there also."
There's a fundamental shift in networking and Anderson sees Equinix being at the heart of it. Unlike in 2014 or even 2017, it's become clear that the foundation of cloud is networking.
"Every networking conversation we're having is turning into a larger conversation about re-architecting how organizations connect their users most effectively to the applications," Anderson said. "There are many workshops, demonstrations, and proofs of concept that we are building now that we have the ATC extended into Equinix to help our customers accelerate their cloud journey."
As much as Duren has been working since the Equinix and WWT partnership kicked off, he has a lot more work in front of him, and he likes that.
"For the last year and a half, establishing this partnership and getting the ATC extension set up in Equinix has been my life," Duren said. "It's been a lot of work, but it's also been one of the most satisfying projects of my career. As a colleague of mine recently said during a presentation, 'Networking is exciting again.'"
Check out Jon Duren's article, "Living on the Edge: Why Proximity Matters in Cloud Environments" for insights into Equinix's recently announced Network Edge Services.