Netsocket's WAN: Branch routing on x86s; automated network services

Netsocket is fine-tuning its SDN offering for MSPs, enabling them to centrally provision virtual branch routing along with automated network services.

With new technology from Netsocket, managed service providers (MSPs) can spin up virtual networks for branch offices, along with a handful of automated network services, in a matter of minutes instead of weeks.

Last fall, the SDN vendor introduced Netsocket Virtual Edge technology, which allows MSPs and large enterprises with their own clouds to centrally provision and administer branch office networks and mesh VPNs on standard servers. Netsocket offered a way for these companies to replace expensive routers and branch appliances with off-the-shelf x86 servers.

Now that technology allows them to automate network services, called vApps, such as security and session border control, through a single graphical user interface (GUI).

"I think of vApps as the partner ecosystem for delivering services and solutions to the virtual edge -- basically like an IT app store [where] users can decide what technologies to deploy," said Bob Laliberte, senior analyst at Enterprise Strategy Group. Engineers can provision these vApps "with no truck roll, no additional appliances," he said.

Tricia Hosek, Netsocket's COO, said the technology is "basically network functions virtualization at the edge of the network."

MSPs maintain a Netsocket controller in their cloud that speaks to standard x86 servers at remote sites. The servers, which NetSocket calls MicroCloud Servers, are preloaded with network service applications, the Netsocket network virtualization agent and a virtual switch.

Netsocket's Virtual Edge provides a GUI that shows engineers virtual connections between networks and applications on virtual machines (VMs), rather than diagrams of physical cables going from network switches or routers to application servers. An engineer can provision virtual networks with services in 15 minutes and three clicks, said Dave Corley, Netsocket director for product management. That's a stark departure from a legacy scenario.

"In the legacy approach, if you buy a router from Adtran or Cisco or Juniper, that router can do only one thing -- routing -- and maybe a little firewall. If you want to add services, you have to go to a separate vendor with separate appliance. You end up with an edge router with constrained services, or else you end up with more appliances and a network plumbing nightmare," said Hosek.

Can Netsocket really build a viable network service ecosystem?

Netsocket has qualified eight network services from partners to live on these servers as vApps that will be available in a Web storefront. But analysts say the company faces an uphill battle in expanding its vApp ecosystem quickly enough to meet users' needs and make the overall system worthwhile.

Four of the qualified partner applications are open source, including an open source firewall and intrusion-detection tool from Snorby, a remote monitoring tool from Pandora, a VPN aggregator from OpenVPN, and a performance monitoring tool from Cacti. Another four proprietary tools include Fortinet's Fortigate firewall and intrusion-detection tool, Microsoft's Window Server 2012, Genband's enterprise session border controller, and Ubiquiti Networks' Wi-Fi controller.

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"The key to a successful ecosystem is having the solutions that either the MSP or customer wants to have, so expect that number of vApps to steadily increase," Laliberte said. "While SMBs[small and medium-sized businesses] may be familiar with and want open source solutions, I expect larger organizations may want to see more familiar names."

In order for this ecosystem to grow in any kind of competitive way, Netsocket will have to make its platform open and easy enough to attract developers.

"If I am a software developer, am I going to develop for the guys that have three deployed customers?" said Christian Renaud, senior analyst at 451 Research. "If they set a high bar or make it onerous, then what's the point?" Specifically Netsocket will have to make its interface to the MicroCloud servers open and easy to use since developers will be creating apps to live on top of them.

Netsocket says it has trials in progress with several major MSP's in the US and EU, and it will continue to qualify application partners for its ecosystem, and will let MSPs and enterprise users request new vendors and apps, Corley said. For those application providers, the process of integrating with the platform will be a lot simpler than working with a traditional router. "We can take an existing app -- let's say the Genband session border controller -- and within two days of interacting with consulting engineers, we can understand the manual processes necessary to install their virtualized app into a virtual environment," he said. That process could have taken 18 months in a legacy router, he added.

Changing the cost structure of network services provisioning

Netsocket is aiming its Virtual Edge at MSPs that serve SMBs. It says these MSPs will find new revenue streams in selling individual network services that are cheap and easy for them deploy. Meanwhile customers will see an entirely different cost structure in branch networking.

Netsocket is shipping a trial-kit Virtual Edge platform with loaded applications, software license, and a year of cloud hosting and maintenance for $1,000. A comparable midrange router would cost about $7,000, Corley said.

Netsocket's Virtual Edge and vApps are immediately available, and can be bought in three models on the MicroCloud server -- the low-end model can host one or two apps, while the higher-end model can run at least seven.

Let us know what you think about the story; email Rivka Gewirtz Little, or follow her on Twitter.

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