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What's up with WANS?

By Claire Rutkowski, CIO, MWH Global

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Claire Rutkowski, CIO, MWH Global

Today’s Wide Area Networks have become increasingly complex and difficult to manage. The deployment and operation of WAN connections can be a daunting manual process that expends valuable IT resources, drives up operating costs and hinders the ability of companies to respond quickly to new business opportunities or challenges.

"You can implement a network that will enable true global integrated working and collaboration through the improved flow of data"

MWH Global, a Colorado-based engineering and construction management company with 135 offices worldwide, had a traditional WAN. But with the proliferation of mobile devices, the adoption of cloud-based services, the increasing use of high-bandwidth applications like video in branch offices, and the need to transfer and collaborate on large files, we were struggling to deliver an acceptable end-user experience while controlling our WAN bandwidth costs. Enter the Software-Defined WAN, or SD WAN.

SD WANs promise to solve many of these common problems. But are SD WAN solutions ready for prime time? Can you implement an SD WAN solution without having to upgrade or replace your existing network infrastructure? The short answer is yes. You can implement a network that will enable true global integrated working and collaboration through the improved flow of data. At MWH, we started planning our SD WAN project in 2013, implemented in 2014, and are now enjoying the benefits. 

IMPLEMENTING SD WAN

Our SD Wan is built around a high-speed core comprised of four points of presence (POP) locations in Chicago, Sydney, London and Mumbai.  These sites were chosen based on their global connectivity and access to high speed international network circuits. 

The branch network segment of the implementation was just as customized and purposeful. All MWH offices connected to the MWH Wide Area Network have at least one business-grade Internet circuit installed. A Dynamic Multipoint Virtual Private Network (DMVPN) is then built over the internet circuit and connects the office to the nearest POP location and a second POP location for resilience. If network traffic needs to be routed to another office in a region, then this action takes place over a DMVPN tunnel which is dynamically built on demand. If connectivity needs to be made to an office out of region, then routing takes place via the core network.

CHALLENGES AND WAYS TO OVERCOME THEM

One of our biggest challenges, and likely yours if you are currently on a traditional WAN, is how to deal with parallel running costs while you make the transition. The new core network talked to the existing core network, allowing traffic to route between offices whether they had been migrated to the new network or not. This allowed for a phased migration, with branch migrations taking place as and when Internet circuits were provisioned, tested and verified ready for migration to the new network. The actual migrations were carried out during non-working hours in order to ensure that there was no impact to the business and no loss of productivity.

MWH office span the globe. We do not have IT staff in each office. This presented us with another challenge: how to set up and configure routers with non-IT staff doing the work. We used a USB-based provisioning process to configure the routers at each office. A “branch migration kit”, which contained the required cabling, documentation and a pre-configured USB key, was assembled for each office and sent with the router. In order to provision the router, it was connected to the new network circuit and then powered up with the USB key inserted. The USB key, then automatically configured the router and connected it to the MWH network. This process entailed considerable preparation to be completed by the project team, but resulted in a much smoother migration process which could be completed with minimal local technical input.

We did not tackle either of these challenges on our own. One of the key best practices, we employed as part of this implementation was taking good counsel. We relied upon the advice and expertise of our partners like Cisco and Glue Networks. After all, no one has all the answers. We built an integrated team of internal experts, Cisco and Glue Networks, all managed by an experienced IT project manager. Everyone had a vested interest in the success of the project, and our partners were part of the team. We did not look at them as ‘suppliers’, but rather as advisors who helped get us from old to new. During the conceptual design and investigative testing of the new network, we depended on Glue Networks for guidance on our core network routing, WAN acceleration, circuit provider selection and configuration, and many other significantly more technical and complex considerations such as optimum routing protocols to use.

LET THE BENEFITS BEGIN

Implementing SD-WAN technology solved several business problems and provided a number of benefits:

Improved File Sharing – MWH works globally, bringing the best and brightest to our clients, regardless of where the experts are located. The growth of 3D, 4D and 5D modelling, point clouds, and increased use of complex graphics is driving increased file sizes. Collaboration can become frustrating as people wait for uploads and downloads. The new network design also enabled us to implement new network circuits at MWH offices across the world which were, on average globally, 11.2 times faster in terms of download speed and 6.5 times faster in terms of upload speed. In fact, we improved the bandwidth of the network circuit at over 70 percent of our offices globally.

Increased Agility – Our old network was fully outsourced. We used a connectivity service provider as an intermediary between MWH and the actual providers. This created lengthy lead times for circuit ordering, which meant that if our company wanted to set up an office 60 days from now, we simply couldn’t do it. Our contract mandated 120 days lead time. By taking on all the network provisioning directly ourselves, we can set up an office in 30 to 60 days. This provides MWH with greater agility.

Greater Collaboration – IT wanted to deploy Lync voice globally. An additional capability that was realized by the business as a result of the new network implementation was the ability to deploy Lync voice to remote locations where this was previously not possible due to restrictive circuit bandwidths. This has increased the number of internal peer-to-peer calls that are made over the network and allows least-cost routing policies to be applied. More importantly, it drives collaboration as anyone in the company can very easily access anyone else through Lync.

Quicker Response Time to Clients/Improved Client Satisfaction - The biggest impact this project has had in the business has been the overall performance of the corporate network. Project teams across the globe are now able to exchange files quickly and efficiently. This allows a “follow the sun” tactical approach to many of the projects underway with the exchange of large files and data such as 3D modelling data and CAD files taking place regularly between MWH offices across different countries and regions.

SD WAN technology has enabled MWH to ramp up the speed with which we connect and serve our clients and our employees. It’s a win-win for any WAN manager.

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