Opening your very first office, shop or any other type of business premises is a stand-out moment in the career of any entrepreneur. But possibly even more special is the day you open your second location – or your third, fourth and so on. Because each subsequent branch you open is a measure of success, a sign of growth right there in bricks and mortar.
It means you have achieved your original business goals, and that you are now ready to move to the next level.
Becoming a multisite operation is not without its challenges, however. Growth means taking on a new lease, employing more staff, doubling your overheads, having to divide your time between different locations. It also means investing in more IT and telecommunications, new computers, new desk phones, new servers and routers. That’s before even considering the need for a new networking infrastructure, telephone and business grade connectivity lines, to connect your new site to the rest of the business and to the world at large.
This can pose its own problems. Suddenly it isn’t just a case of providing Wi-Fi, VoIP telephony, security and intranet services like email access and data storage to staff working in a single location. Staff need to use the same business IT tools running the same communications systems across different sites, ensuring all business data is stored in one place, you have to be able to integrate distant premises into the same network.
The solution is to create a private network known as a Wide Area Network (WAN). WANs build on the infrastructure of local networks, or LANs, which are used to connect multiple users and multiple endpoints to a single IT system. When you have several LANs operating at different locations, a WAN connects them all together, meaning all IT assets across a dispersed geographic area all work together as part of a single system. Staff across different sites can access and share the same resources, branch offices are connected to head office so you don’t have to duplicate server equipment and software.
However, not all WAN solutions are the same. The more sites you open, the more complex the networking requirements become. The approach you took when you opened your second or third premises may no longer be efficient or cost effective by the time you get to your fifth, 10th or 20th. That’s where understanding the different networking technologies available, and the different ways they can ease the growing pains of your business, comes into its own.
Outgrowing your WAN
A WAN is an IP or internet-based network that connects two or more sites. It is important to note the distinction between the private, internal network connections WANs establish and external, public internet connections. The priorities of a WAN include privacy and security for all forms of communications and IT resources shared between locations, including telephone/VoIP, networked computer systems, intranet, data communications and more.
The simplest way to establish a WAN is to install a point-to-point leased line, connecting two locations. Point-to-point leased lines provide dedicated, exclusive network resources for all IT and telecoms functions, meaning they are used by your company and your company alone. As well as having security and privacy benefits, this also means that leased line service providers are also able to guarantee a high level of service, as they avoid the issues of contention and subsequent slow download speeds and network outages associated with the public internet. With a leased line, you get a higher level of availability and performance than if you tried to link your different premises via standard broadband.
The downsides to point-to-point leased lines become apparent the more you have to add. Each new line to a new location is an additional cost, and the longer the connection is, the more you have to pay. Other costs arise from the fact that each new premises will need equipment such as routers, switches, and firewalls.
With a leased line approach to creating a WAN, each new location is added in a linear fashion. Imagine a defensive wall with a string of forts along it – each fort is its own self-contained, protected node connected by the path along the wall. In a leased line WAN, the protections come in the form of firewalls used to protect the IT assets at each location.
This linear WAN model has two problems. One is how to build a gateway through the firewall at each new location to allow access to the WAN ‘path’. This has to be done individually and manually, with new firewall policies configured at each site. The more sites you add, the bigger the task of managing these configurations becomes.
The other issue is, the more nodes you add, the busier those pathways become. Data packets for telephone conversations, emails, business applications, data transfers and so on are all jostling for space on the same line, perhaps passing through several other nodes at a time on their way to their desired destination. Once it reaches a certain size, this kind of unstructured approach to WAN traffic eats up bandwidth and can cause latency or ‘bottlenecks’, reversing some of the benefits leased lines have over public internet connections.
Once you notice that growing your WAN in line with your expanding business is becoming costly and complex, and network performance is also suffering, it is time to look beyond leased lines to see how other networking technologies can help you.
A first port of call is a technology known as Multi-Protocol Label Switching or MPLS. This allows for the creation of a multisite WAN to be delivered over a provider’s network, with no dependency on any one site and no bottlenecks or choke-points.
MPLS does several things to resolve the burdens of cost, complexity and performance drawbacks that affect growing WANs. Its main function is to sort out data packets and find the most efficient way to send them where they need to go. This reduces network congestion, makes bandwidth utilisation more efficient, improves speed and, ultimately, delivers a better end user experience. This is particularly noticeable when running VoIP telephone lines or other real-time services like video conferencing, as the intelligent separation and routing of data types helps to avoid latency and improves quality and clarity in audio and visuals.
Another benefit of MPLS is that it supports a WAN model that is more like a single big digital fortress rather than a series of small forts connected by a protected pathway. You can run a single bank of servers in a central datacentre, a single set of networking equipment, a single firewall and distribute resources from that hub to all branch locations, enclosing them within the same network boundaries. This creates cost savings and also reduces the administration burden, including allowing you to work with a single consolidated supplier with a consistent level of service support across your entire network infrastructure.
MPLS is also completely agnostic, meaning it will integrate all telecoms, IT and data systems seamlessly. This means it can take advantage of a variety of last mile access technologies, such as fibre and wireless leased lines, EFM, 4G or even FTTC, further increasing flexibility.
A more recent innovation in networking technology is Software-Defined WAN, or SD-WAN. Like other virtualisation technologies, SD-WAN separates physical networking resources (e.g. fibre lines and equipment) from a software management layer that actually defines and runs the network services. In this respect, it can be compared to a Virtual Private Network (VPN), in that both are able to establish private connections over public internet, without the need for physical leased lines. This creates cost savings and makes extending networks to new sites and for new resources much more simple.
For now, SD-WAN is largely finding favour as an enterprise solution for large businesses looking for flexibility and scalability in how they integrate and manage multinational, not just multisite, networks. In the majority of cases, businesses are looking to SD-WAN to complement rather than replace MPLS – 78% of SD-WAN adopters in one study said they had no plans to stop using other technologies.
A key benefit of a hybrid MPLS and SD-WAN approach is a balance between quality of service and cost. As noted, MPLS guarantees quality of voice and video communications, but as video in particular becomes increasingly popular, bandwidth costs in an MPLS network go up. This can be mitigated by also using SD-WAN, which can be configured to allocate bandwidth according to the needs of different services, increasing efficiency and lowering costs overall.
For any growing business, ensuring your IT and telecoms network continues to meet your needs has to be a priority. The more you grow, the more sites you add, the more of a challenge this becomes. At M247, we specialise in building and managing high performance Wide area networks to suit businesses of every size and type. With our expertise and commitment to delivering quality bespoke solutions for every client, we’re the partner you need to help your business grow. Get in touch with us today to find out more.