Not even remotely boring
Originally published in Brainstorm magazine, February 2020
Remote site and branch office connectivity solutions have undergone something of a technology revolution.
Connectivity solutions have often been neglected. Remote locations, rural complexities, limited infrastructure and dodgy connectivity have left remote offices/branch offices (ROBOs) neglected by frustrated IT departments and companies. Like lost technology graveyards, these sites are often littered with creaking legacy technology solutions, the tattered remains of attempts to get the people and the platforms connected. This has to change. Organisations planning to take advantage of digital transformation cannot allow for their ROBOs to become a liability. Efficient ROBO connectivity and technology has become critical to ensuring capable business operations.
Businesses are looking for solutions that are cost-effective, reliable and relevant to the South African market. They want technology that allows them to not only ensure seamless business integration and remote site control, but that allow them to do more with what they have. In South Africa, solutions have been designed around the fact that there is unreliable connectivity. Cellular coverage is limited, fibre hasn’t reached many areas of the country, 5G has yet to even become a tangible reality, and infrastructure is patchy. Fortunately, the evolution of satellite, innovation in cellular and the changing potential of software have seen a rise in solutions shaped specifically for the ROBO environment and in ensuring robust connectivity.
Satellite has become a far more reliable and accessible solution; now that the costs have come down, it allows for deeper visibility into extremely remote areas without the price tag. It’s also capable of bypassing the challenges that limp in alongside cellular, especially in areas where the networks are poor, if not impossible to reach. However, satellite comes with its own issues, such as high latency, and this can affect application efficiency. Solutions have to understand latency and slow connections, and they need to include TCP session optimisation to ensure the solution fits the site’s purpose. Then, of course, SD-WAN bursts through the door.
SD-WAN has lived up to its promise of automating the enterprise WAN to provide both operational and agility benefits. It allows for the enterprise network to be unified from end to end while offering visibility and control across the board, improving operations and service agility. It’s capable of being implemented within the South African context to be flexible and scalable enough to adapt to future business requirements. That said, SD-WAN hasn’t seen significant adoption in South Africa and it can be initially more expensive on installation over the short term due to contractual commitments and transition periods.
Within this mixture of technology and capability, what should the business be focusing on as it moves towards improving the ROBO status quo? Mission-critical services and ensuring failover is a solid first step, as is a clear understanding of short- and long-term WAN strategy and application usage. Some of the key benefits of a well thought out ROBO implementation are using a hosted voice platform for zero rating internal calls, all sites connected to the same network to ensure compliance across the business, and the ability to leverage economies of scale. It also ensures that every part of the business benefits from the implementation of digital strategy across the company. The IT guy who gets in the car to drive to the remote location to fix the simple problem can stay where he is. In short, it’s time to care about the ROBOs in the wild and, finally, there is technology that can actually get this job done without the IT guy turning to drink.
Robo love: What exactly can technology do for the ROBO?
What technology solutions and considerations are essential for the South African landscape when it comes to ROBO reliability and connectivity?
Rentia Booysen, collaboration and networking lead, Weston-Comstor Sub-Saharan Africa: A connectivity solution that lets operators use LTE radio technology to deliver high-speed broadband connectivity in hard-to-reach areas, maximising spectrum use in the process, is what’s needed for reliable ROBO connectivity.
Binesh George, CEO, Redvine Networks: Because customers here are cost-conscious, we need to think about solutions that make sense, that aren’t just about moving away from MPLS. Many organisations in verticals, like retail and public sector, for example, have branches in small towns and although the connectivity costs are higher in more remote towns and cities, we need to still provide a solution that keeps the total cost manageable.
Hannes Rheeder, ESM business unit manager at Networks Unlimited Africa: Innovative out-of-band systems automate onsite capabilities for configuration management, including bare-metal restoration of failed network devices and roll-back of errant configuration changes. And out-of-band management ensures that remote access to infrastructure utilises the same AAA (Authentication, Authorisation and Accounting) procedures as in-band management.
Jacques Visser, head of wireless, Vox: We have multiple options in terms of connectivity, even in secondary towns that are now well-serviced with LTE-A and satellite. On the GSM side, LTE-A has made a notable contribution, not to the same extent as fibre, but it does fill a very specific gap in terms of fixed GSM services. Telkom recently made a decision to disinvest in ADSL, which will most likely be replaced by multiple services. ADSL connected a number of branches beyond metropolitan areas and substitutions will likely take the form of LTE-A and satellite.
Kathryn-Leigh Storm, regional sales manager: Africa, Globalstar: Previously, satellite was deemed too expensive to monitor solutions in remote areas, however, with the IoT hype and more affordable satellite communications, companies are able to monitor more and more solutions within their business, especially in remote geographic areas.
What are the most important considerations when implementing and enabling ROBO connectivity?
Binesh George: The most important thing is to use a technology that understands the type of connectivity available, and be able to measure in real-time the changing performance of the links. You need a view of every link and to see where there’s latency, packet loss and jitter, in, and for, every branch.
Frank Mullen, CEO, Zinia Group: Determine the requirements of branch offices – what do they need to connect so they can operate? And how much bandwidth do they need to access these tools effectively? The second step is to examine the underlying technology architecture as this will define how a ROBO solution is delivered.
Kathryn-Leigh Storm: Basically, the less infrastructure, the better; this allows for less maintenance, breakage, replacements and enables better troubleshooting.
What are the benefits of investing into ROBO?
Binesh George: The value of a robust ROBO means that branches can have the same functionality and capabilities as a head office or metropolitan location, without compromising the quality of the service. The value is a more integrated business rather than a disparate office structure that needs to be managed separately.
Frank Mullen: Time to deployment is very quick; today, implementing new technologies is almost plug and play. Collaboration of teams and projects is much easier because your remote people are now plugged in. The scalability and flexibility of a business has increased dramatically.
Kumaran Gopaul, sales manager, Turrito Networks: Ensuring ROBOs are connected also allows businesses to leverage economies of scale and have an entire organisation on a single system platform instead of multiple systems making training and managing of this more functional and easier.
When SD-WAN connected 50 countries
Streamlining connectivity across multiple geographic locations, infrastructures and technological limitations.
Omnia Holdings is a JSElisted company in the chemicals sector with a global footprint and a highly specialised value chain. It provides solutions across agriculture, mining and chemicals and has a reach across South Africa, southern Africa, east Africa, central Africa, Australasia, Asia Pacific, South America, North America, Central America, and Europe. The company required a solution that would help alleviate the challenges that accompanied its limited connectivity at various sites around the world.
“We have a large footprint, with operations in more than 50 countries,” says Rajan Pillay, GM: Global IT at Omnia. “One of the regular complaints we had from our users was that the network was slow or down and was hampering day-to-day business operations. Downtime is expensive for any business, even more so in remote locations, and finding a solution that can keep the business up and seamlessly failover if something goes wrong makes a compelling case to the board.”
The challenge was to minimise downtime, which impacted on revenue and frustrated the management team, and to reduce global travel expenses. The limitations of poor network performance and bandwidth constraints had prevented Omnia from being able to use tools such as Microsoft Skype for Business or Teams to their full extent, and added to travel costs.
“We knew we had to find an alternative solution to our existing MPLS network,” says Pillay. “After doing some market research, we decided that an SD-WAN solution could solve many of our issues. We selected VeloCloud as our SD-WAN platform and partnered locally with Redvine Networks to drive the implementation.”
Omnia started with a proof of concept (PoC) that used some of its most challenging sites as data points. For Pillay, the PoC was a critical part of the process and one that he highly recommends at the most remote and difficult sites to truly test the robustness of a remote office branch office solution.
“The results were encouraging so we extended the PoC and Redvine rooted out our problems and identified critical issues,” says Pillay. “Today, we have SD-WAN at all our sites and it’s linked back to multiple datacentres for maximum efficiency. One of the major advantages of the solution is the ability to monitor all links to a site on a real-time basis. This allows us to easily identify where the problems may be occurring.”
With the VeloCloud SD-WAN, Omnia can use wired or wireless broadband internet, with or without traditional MPLS, to create enterprise-grade wide area networks with increased bandwidth, high performance access to cloud service insertion, and extensive network visibility. For Pillay, the ability to bundle multiple links to one site and have total visibility into the performance of each link has been invaluable. In the past, if a line went down, the team at Omnia was restricted in terms of what the ISP told them. Now, they can see which lines are problematic and they automatically fail over to another link. If the problem continues, then the team has the data it needs to remove the link completely.
“The SD-WAN has enabled even the most remote branches to have reliable connectivity with global colleagues and customers,” states Pillay. “The solution has provided a stable, redundant and resilient network that has assured us of no network downtime and loss of revenue. At a time when businesses are exceptionally costconscious, we’ve seen a 65% reduction in rand cost per megabyte of data usage. Our users can communicate efficiently with one another when they need to instead of having to travel, and this has led to a secondary effect of reduction in travel costs.”