Managed network services: a buyer’s guide

It can be difficult to know what managed network services are right for your business. Buying less than you need will hold your company back, but buying too much will waste resources. Here’s our overview of the main options and their benefits.

 

Today’s businesses can begin with little more than an idea and a computer. The setting could be a kitchen table or a coffee shop. It’s entirely possible to start a business without an office, but few companies today can begin without an internet connection. Expansion brings more people – and more computers – that need to be connected not only to the internet, but also to one another. That might be simple in a one-room startup but rapidly becomes more complicated for an organisation spread over a large campus, such as a hospital.

 

Think bigger still and picture an organisation with multiple sites. It could be several offices, hundreds of stores, a few warehouses. Then there are remote workers to connect, and even vehicles, devices and packages that might need to communicate with the network and share data. What begins with an idea and a computer can quickly become an organisation that produces vast amounts of data that must be shared with colleagues, customers and other stakeholders – and shared efficiently, securely and quickly.

 

Making this happen can be a headache. It costs money and requires an IT to manage it, which is why so many organisations turn to managed networking to help them compete in a fast-changing environment. But where to begin? There are many services available, and what follows is an overview of the main options, beginning with that initial connection out to the internet.

 

Connectivity

The internet is necessary for everything from sending and receiving email to accessing cloud services and sharing data. It’s something that most of us take for granted in our everyday lives. It’s how you’re reading this article, after all. But there are advantages to using a specialist third-party. For a start, they will take the time to understand the customer’s particular needs, rather than delivering an off-the-peg service.

 

A television company, for example, is likely to need to transfer large video files, which will require significant bandwidth. For them, performance is essential and a 1Gbps fibre ethernet leased line is likely to be the best solution. In contrast, a charity with lots of remote workers might prioritise cost and need only to ensure that each team member has a standard ADSL broadband connection. In either case, a specialist network provider will be able to reduce cost by selecting the best mix of solutions.

 

Where bespoke networking truly comes into its own is the ability to mix-and-match needs. Perhaps one office needs a secure connection to a cloud service, such as Amazon Web Services, while another needs only standard broadband and a handful of executives need to be able to reach the network from 4G smartphones. Off-the-peg suppliers are likely to be too expensive for such specific needs, assuming they can meet them at all.

 

Security is important, both in terms of keeping your data safe and in the peace of mind that comes with a reliable service. A dedicated networking provider with the best technology will have a resilient MPLS (Multiprotocol Label Switching) network. This is the basis of a new generation of intelligent networks that can send ‘packets’ of data across the internet more quickly and efficiently than their predecessors because of the way they label data and the fact that they can transfer it using multiple protocols. Less advanced technologies are restricted to just one protocol, such as IP (Internet Protocol) or ethernet.

 

For some businesses, a fast, reliable and secure internet connection is enough. They can save money by getting only the services that they need, and do not have to support that service with their own IT staff. For most, however, it is just the first step in a suite of services that help keep modern companies productive and competitive.

 

Managed LAN

Most businesses need more than just an internet connection, however. They need a local network that connects their team to the applications and data necessary to do their jobs. A local area network (LAN) connects computers, printers, shared servers and whatever other devices need to be able to share information so that the business runs smoothly. These needs can often be fluid and unpredictable, so they need to use state of the art switches and routers to transfer the traffic effectively.

 

For the University of Westminster, for example, a network needs to provide for thousands of students whose demand for faster connection speeds and greater bandwidth is growing continuously. Daniel Halter, Head of IT Infrastructure, says: “Our students are online constantly, and they expect to be able to access content, use online applications and collaborate on their studies without any interruptions.”

 

The network that the university had been using was over-reliant on a single connection, which often led to failures that had to be resolved manually by an on-site team. Working with Redcentric, the university was able to upgrade its network with new core routers designed to handle massive bandwidth demands as part of an affordable architecture. The resulting network removed the earlier single-point of failure and provides reliability and future-proofing while still saving the university money.

 

A well-designed, managed LAN can handle demanding environments like universities, hospitals, large offices and more. It can reduce the demand on the IT team too, allowing them to focus on more critical tasks. A managed LAN network can add features such as segregation and separation – so that user groups with different security requirements or service needs can co-exist on the network in a flexible way. It can even include things like power over ethernet (PoE), which allows ethernet connections to power telephony devices, WiFi equipment and other devices in a way that reduces operational cost and installation lead time.

 

All of this can be done without a drain on the organisation’s IT team, and all features can be monitored by the managed service provider. The level of monitoring necessary will depend on the individual needs of the organisation, but the industry standard is to check network availability every five minutes. With 24/7 monitoring, a problem that arises in the middle of the night can often be fixed remotely before the customer even knows there was a problem.

 

Managed WAN

Plenty of organisations today need to connect multiple sites, and this can add another layer of complexity beyond the LAN. A managed WAN (Wide Area Network) brings a range of sites onto one network, from factories and warehouses, to offices and schools. It provides the same performance, reliability and security that an organisation would expect from their LAN.

 

For many organisations, their WAN has to connect to other specialist networks, such as Janet, the network for the research and education sector in the UK, or the equivalent for the healthcare sector, the Health and Social Care Network (HSCN). For these networks and others like them, such as the emergency services network, security and compliance are vital.

 

Networks like these are a tempting target for all manner of attackers, from cybercriminals and nation-state actors, through to those who just want to vandalise and cause disruption. This is another instance where finding a specialist provider with relevant experience can save money and time.

 

Even a standard WAN can be a challenge. When YO! Sushi, the restaurant chain with 80 branches in the UK, approached Redcentric it had a poorly performing WAN that was causing regular outages across the network. These sometimes lasted for days, disrupting customer payments and critical reporting and affecting customer confidence and staff morale. The problem was exacerbated by the contract with the supplier, which did not make it easy to scale the network flexibly and split support responsibilities between prime and sub-contractors. When an issue arose, the buck was passed between suppliers.

 

When Adam Barlow took over as YO! Sushi’s head of IT, he approached Redcentric for help. The challenge was not an easy one. The company’s branches are in a variety of locations, including airports and railway stations, and this brought extra complications in getting permission to perform the necessary work. Even so, there were no delays and YO! Sushi got a network with no more outages. Data on guest preferences, food popularity and all kinds of other metrics now reaches head office quickly, enabling timely decision-making.

 

Perhaps even more importantly, the company now has a single port of call when something has to be changed, and plenty of flexibility for scaling the network as some branches close and new ones open. Mr Barlow says: “If there are any issues, they are either resolved before they are service impacting, or dealt with promptly, professionally and proficiently – there’s no buck passing.”

 

Of course, like specialist networks, corporate WANs must be kept secure too. Criminals are often looking for easy access to data, such as usernames and passwords, that can be used for identity theft or for attacks elsewhere. Others are just looking to see if they can disrupt a major corporate network. Security can’t be added retrospectively, so any company must ask a prospective supplier for a detailed explanation of their security policies and processes.

 

SD-WAN

The rise of the cloud has helped to drive a new kind of network, the Software-Defined Wide Area Network (SD-WAN). As the name might suggest, this is a virtual network, controlled by software rather than a conventional architecture of physical routers and switches. This approach allows it to send network traffic more intelligently, at a speed that matches the demands of the latest cloud applications.

 

Today’s software-as-a-service cloud applications often give the appearance of running on a user’s computer but in reality most of the processing is done on cloud servers. For that to happen efficiently, so that users can get their work done without frustrating delays, the connection must transfer data rapidly. That’s where SD-WANs come into their own.

 

Even though these are ‘virtual’ networks, they still have to be monitored, maintained and secured. Firewalls, anti-malware, web-filtering tools and security other technologies can secure both the network and the connections to it, just as they can for other network types. The major difference is that connectivity types can be more varied, from physically connected devices to ones that connect wirelessly or using mobile connectivity. This makes the network more efficient, both in terms of time and money.

 

In many accounts, SD-WAN is often pitched as a cheaper alternative to MPLS-based networks. However, this misses the most significant benefits of SD-WAN and underplays the benefit of MPLS, which will retain a key role in enterprise networks as a premium-based service with performance and security at its core.

 

The key benefit of SD-WAN comes from its zero-touch deployment capability. In a traditional network, a customer that wants to extend its network to a new warehouse, for example, would need an engineer to visit the site, install the necessary equipment and then configure and test it. Any subsequent policy changes on the network have to be carried out by the supplier – with each device on the network manually updated – and this takes time and effort.

 

A zero-touch deployment means that a pre-configured piece of equipment could be sent to the warehouse and plugged in so that it could be automatically added to the network by the central SD-WAN controller. Similarly, policy changes can be done via the SD-WAN controller and immediately sent to all the devices on the network. This takes a process that previously might have taken weeks and completes it in seconds.

 

As with any of the networking technologies discussed in this article, the key consideration is whether it is appropriate to your needs. This is something that can be determined in consultation with an expert supplier.

 

Managed Wireless Networking

We’ve already touched, in passing, on wireless connections to your networks. These can’t be overlooked in a modern business. From ensuring that your staff can work more efficiently to deriving insights from guest usage and even driving value from your network, a wireless environment can bring all manner of benefits.

 

For example, Ascot Racecourse, in Berkshire, UK, became the first racecourse in the world to provide a single wireless solution for every stakeholder. Previously, Ascot required TV companies to run miles cables to connect to the network when covering horse racing events, while bookmakers and caterers would have to rent fixed line phone systems to take credit card payments.

 

The wireless network, designed, planned and installed by Redcentric, solved these problems and offered other improvements, such as wireless connections for all 500 Tote betting terminals and the photo finish equipment. Trainers and journalists can now get replays and details of the race too. Even the turnstiles are connected to the network, providing an accurate, realtime account of the number of visitors in any area, which allows Ascot to sell more tickets.

 

“The real return on investment,” says Alastair Warwick, General Manager of Ascot Racecourse, “is being able to do and offer things that we were never able to before.”

 

Mobility is an obvious benefit of wireless networks for any business. Today’s workplaces are becoming more flexible, with employees switching frequently between desks, meeting rooms and ad hoc ‘breakout areas’. Wireless connectivity is essential in such an environment. Equally important is security and a properly designed wireless LAN will offer the most appropriate security posture for every device and user that accesses the network.

 

Meanwhile, the visitor experience can be enhanced with resilient, secure and simple guest WiFi that does not affect the integrity of the customer’s internal systems. This could be for guests in an office, customers in a department store or university students. An airport might charge for passenger access to its WiFI network, but even organisations that provide free access can drive value from a wireless LAN. Usage data can reveal footfall in different areas of a site and how long visitors spend there, which can inform companies about where to invest, provide additional capacity or open up new services.

 

In a hyper-competitive sector, such as retail, smart and timely use of these insights can provide a significant competitive advantage. Once again, an experienced third-party provider ensures that these services are reliable, tailored to the customer’s needs and always offer optimal performance.

 

Secure Remote Access

Wireless networks are ideal for flexible working on-site, but how does a company stay productive when, increasingly, employees need to be able to work off-site, too? Working from home is growing in popularity but workers often want to work on a train, in a cafe, or from a client’s office. Furthermore, they expect to be able to complete tasks from a range of devices, such as their smartphone or laptop.

 

To be productive, they need access to their data and applications, which will usually be stored on the company network. This includes all manner of sensitive information that, for remote access to work, will often have to be sent over a publicly accessible network. Fortunately, this can be solved with an encrypted, point-to-point virtual private network (VPN) that will allow employees to stay productive while also delivering security and compliance.

 

Having a dedicated solution delivers other benefits, such as providing a business with control over who has access to what data, from where, and using what device. For example, a firm might decide that certain types of data can be accessed only from a company smartphone and not a personal one. Or they might prohibit access to the network from public WiFi. This can all be defined and monitored, so that user behaviour can be analysed to make sure the permissions are appropriate.

 

Extra security is necessary in some sectors, especially those such as finance or healthcare, which have to comply with strict regulatory controls. Other businesses might simply want the assurance of knowing they have the most secure service possible. 

 

Those companies will need a service with a range of security options that can be configured to meet their particular needs. For example, VPNs can be set up to require multi-factor authentication before they allow access. That would mean that an employee who is trying to access the network from their laptop would also have to input a code, sent to their mobile phone, before they could get in. This reduces the risk of identity theft, or access by an intruder if the laptop is lost.

 

Conclusion

Hopefully this article has given you a sense of which managed network services will be right for your company’s needs. The ideal solution for most companies will probably be a combination of the above. This is part of the reason why a specialist provider is a good idea: they can ensure that you buy only the services you need, with the performance level you require.

 

The other reasons, as we’ve discussed, are the cost savings, reduced demands on IT time, and the reassurance of knowing your network is constantly being monitored by experts. With all this taken care of, your organisation can focus on your true priorities.

 

Key takeaways

  • Not all suppliers are equal. For every service on this list, make sure you ask what the service levels are. What capacity are you getting? And is it scalable and flexible for when your needs change?
  • Things inevitably go wrong. What kind of monitoring does the supplier provide? How long will you be without the service if it fails?
  • Don’t take security for granted. Make sure you understand the security measures the supplier will take and ensure that you will be protected from the threats you expect to face.

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