Enterprises have become comfortable switching from the purchase-and-refresh cycle for servers, storage and applications to a cloud-based as-a-service approach. So, why not take the same tack when it comes to the network?
That’s the concept behind Network-as-a-Service (NaaS), which promises predictable costs, increased agility, better performance, cloud-style scalability, timely integration of new technologies, service-provider-level security, and a high degree of automation.
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NaaS is becoming an attractive option for companies facing challenges such as recurring capital costs, staffing and skills shortages, and the increased complexity associated with securing remote access for employees and managing multi-cloud environments.
At a more strategic level, NaaS is being pitched as a way to help IT teams align the network to meet business needs, enable innovation, support digital transformation efforts, and keep up with technology advances in areas like 5G, AI, and automation.
Mark Leary, research director, network analytics at IDC, sums up the problem facing network execs this way: “With the level of networking complexity being so high, the speed at which businesses need to respond to market changes, and the extensive reach of modern networks, there are a lot of people realizing, ‘We just can’t do this anymore, and we need help.’”
Vendor NaaS offerings run the gamut
With so many vendors jumping on the NaaS bandwagon, it is becoming clear that NaaS means different things to different sets of vendors.
Traditional networking vendors
If you’re Cisco, with a massive installed base of on-premises networking gear, NaaS might mean encouraging customers to start their NaaS journey with Cisco SASE, a cloud-based service that provides secure access from the edge to internet-based resources. Down the road, customers might eventually transition to a subscription model for networking equipment when the next big refresh cycle comes around. Other networking vendors making a big NaaS push include Palo Alto Networks and HPE-Aruba.
Cloud-based WAN service providers
If you’re Cloudflare, NaaS might encompass DDoS protection, secure remote access, network firewall, traffic acceleration, and Zero Trust functionality. Other vendors in this category include Aryaka, Perimeter 81 and Akamai.
Traditional networking service providers
If you’re Verizon, NaaS could mean managed SD-WAN, VoIP, security services, and a high-performance interface with SaaS applications, all running on the Verizon network.
The good news for enterprise IT is that you’re in the driver’s seat when it comes to figuring out exactly how NaaS can benefit your network, and which type of vendor to partner with, because the key to the “as-a-service” model is that you only order what you need, and you can scale up or down at any time.
How is NaaS different from other as-a-service offerings?
According to an IDC InfoBrief published in March, “The fundamental definition of NaaS is the delivery of network services inclusive of hardware and software. People often associate as-a-service delivery with delivery of services entirely through the cloud. However, NaaS can come with some differences, namely that NaaS deployments typically require hardware and software on-premises for access networking.”
The IDC report adds that today, day-to-day management of network hardware and software is usually done by the organization’s in-house IT staff. But another option is a fully managed service. In this scenario, “NaaS is a holistic approach where complete installation, implementation, maintenance, and support are provided by the network vendor or MSP.”
Gartner’s Jonathan Forest describes NAAS this way: “NaaS offerings are primarily operated by the vendor and deliver network functionality as a service, which includes self-service capability, on-demand usage, operating expenditure (OpEx) pricing, and dynamic scaling up and scaling down. Its offering may include elements such as network switches, routers, gateways, and firewalls.”
What are the benefits of NaaS?
NaaS can deliver a wide range of benefits, some obvious, such as being able to offload routine network maintenance so that IT staffers can focus on more important things. And some are not so obvious, like not having to worry about how to dispose of old hardware because you don’t own it anymore.
Some key benefits of the NaaS model:
According to IDC’s Brandon Butler, “For network practitioners, NaaS can increase productivity: Edge network infrastructure delivered as a service with advanced management capabilities allows IT workers to rely on a trusted NaaS provider for the non-differentiated, day-to-day management of the network, which frees up time for IT workers to focus on business-enabling tasks while improving the performance and security of the network.”
By switching to a NaaS model, organizations are able to keep up with the latest technological advances because the NaaS provider is able to deliver faster refresh cycles and provide access to the latest technologies. For companies looking into increased automation, AIOps, augmented reality, 5G, etc., NaaS can be an attractive option.
With traditional network management, IT staffers are tied up resolving trouble tickets. One promised benefit of NaaS is that the service provider performs active monitoring of the network and uses advanced techniques like machine learning and anomaly detection to anticipate and fix support issues before they occur.
Improved network performance
The NaaS provider should have the expertise to optimize network performance and reduce problems associated with common network bugaboos like configuration errors. There are business benefits as well since a fully-managed NaaS should experience less downtime.
Similarly, the NaaS provider operates with an established a set of security best practices and a should have a high level of in-house expertise. For example, vendors take on the responsibility for keeping their services and underlying hardware updated with the latest security patches.
One advantage of not owning the gear is that you don’t have to worry about disposing of it. Most organizations recognize the importance of IT asset disposition (ITAD) services and sustainability goals.
In the event that you have to expand the network to accommodate new business units, new locations, new sets of end users, the NaaS vendor, with its global reach, can quickly and easily deploy new network services.
As companies digitize more business processes, add new applications, move more data to and from edge, NaaS vendors can provision additional capacity on-demand. And since, NaaS makes it easy to scale down as well, companies can expand network capacity for short-term projects without having to make a capital expenditure.
Questions to ask yourself about NaaS
Before jumping into NaaS, organizations need to ask themselves some tough questions, because NaaS isn’t for everybody.
According to Cisco’s 2022 Global Networking Trends Report, IT professionals who were surveyed had “mixed reactions” to NaaS. “Most were on opposite ends of the spectrum, being either hot or cold when it comes to NaaS adoption,” according to the report.
The top concern was loss of control over the networking environment, and the report says the hot vs. cold split reflects fundamental differences between two types of IT operations.
In one camp you have an organization with skilled IT staffers and a belief that internal teams should control the networking stack. In the other, you have the “lean IT” approach in which organizations are looking for ways to “consolidate their IT, reassess routine versus value-added tasks and find ways to offload infrastructure maintenance.”
Organizations considering NaaS need to assess which camp they belong to (or want to belong to) and determine whether they would be comfortable handing over control, or as the Cisco report puts it, shifting from flying the plane to calling the shots from the control tower.
Other concerns include the worry that switching to NaaS will cause a disruption in networking services, upheaval within the IT organization, and that it would be difficult to integrate the legacy networking environment with the NaaS service provider’s infrastructure.
CapEx vs. OpEx
The shift to a pay-per use, subscription model might look good a first blush—getting out from under those expensive hardware and software refreshes every three to five years in favor of a flexible system that gives you the agility to quickly scale up to meet new business requirements.
But there are some possible gotchas to consider. Gartner’s Forest cautions: “Avoid NaaS offers if you want to retain network design control or prefer to sweat assets beyond typical refresh cycles.” In other words, if your company is satisfied with running legacy gear for as long as it still works, rather than refreshing on a regular basis, then the ROI calculation might not work in your favor.
Forest also says NaaS makes more sense for organizations with predictable consumption patterns, rather than organizations prone to big spikes in demand. Those spikes can result in eye-popping, unexpected charges.
Other questions to consider are: Will moving to an OpEx model help the organization overcome limited budgets and CapEx freezes, or is that not an issue? Would moving to an OpEx model free up financial resources for innovation and investments in new technology? And just from a procedural perspective, would it benefit the organization to simplify budget approvals by moving to OpEx?
Ultimately, when total costs are tallied up, NaaS might turn out to be more expensive than what you’re currently doing, but flexibility, agility and scalability have intrinsic business value that should be weighed into ROI calculations.
In the end, the network exists to serve the needs of the business, so organizations should ask themselves whether the status quo is hindering your ability to achieve business goals. More specifically:
- Will moving to NaaS help solve internal IT resource challenges and free up IT teams to focus on innovation?
- Will NaaS help the team meet increasingly complex business and security demands, which might be outstripping the internal team’s abilities?
- Will NaaS best practices and the expertise of the NaaS vendor help optimize the end user experience?
- Is your business relatively static, or is it constantly evolving and expanding through mergers, acquisitions, new lines of business, new geographical territories, new digital transformation initiatives, and does your network team have the bandwidth to keep up?
Questions to ask NaaS vendors
Before committing to a NaaS vendor, it’s important to conduct a comprehensive ROI calculation,and it’s important to pin down the vendor on a variety of key questions.
- How will my legacy infrastructure be impacted by a move to NaaS? Can you lay out the details of a measured, phased approach that doesn’t disrupt day-to-day operations?
- Along the same lines, if the migration drags on, what are the migration costs associated with a shift to NasS? And how do I factor in migration costs when I’m calculating ROI?
- What risks am I taking when it comes to vendor lock-in? How easily, if at all, can I switch NaaS vendors?
- Once I commit to a NaaS vendor, how can I be sure I get timely patches, the latest technology updates, and best-of-breed services?
- What types of SLAs can I establish for network downtime or performance-related issues?
- Will your service work if I have a multi-vendor environment for my core networking gear?
- What tools or services do you provide to help me calculate and track ROI over time?
Getting started on the road to NaaS
When IDC asked survey respondents what would trigger a move to NaaS, the top answer was a move to new technology, followed by faster deployment of new features, reduced maintenance and support costs, and freeing up IT to focus on business enabling activities.
The as-a-service model enables organizations to start small, take baby steps, and proceed at their own pace. Companies might begin by simply replacing MPLS or VPNs with NaaS, or offloading SD-WAN.
Or enterprises could take the other approach and go fully managed NaaS, but just for one branch office, retail location or other standalone facility. And then scale up across the broader enterprise.
The final point is that NaaS remains a nascent technology that is just starting to gain a foothold in the enterprise. Gartner’s predictions for NaaS adoption are modest: By the end of 2024, on-premises NaaS will be adopted by 15% of all enterprises, up from less than 1% in 2021.