Guest Column | May 19, 2014

Bye-Bye, Broadband Barriers: Carrier-Class Network Service Is Available In Smaller Markets

By Jon Mims, Director of Managed Services, Cbeyond

Managed Service Providers (MSPs) that serve multi-location businesses know that their customers thrive when their satellite offices generate a large share of the company’s revenue and the home office drives efficiency and cost control through well managed, centralized operations — including IT.

As most MSPs can attest, the typical multi-location technology environment is a hub and spoke configuration, in which the central office houses the core IT platform, including line of business applications, IT management, and business continuity applications; while the outlying satellite offices have function-specific technologies and local office productivity tools. As such, the remote offices rely heavily on access to central office systems to conduct work and generate revenue, and the home office relies on consistent and accurate data flow from the remote offices to monitor business performance. 

This interdependency presents an excellent opportunity for the MSP to provide a broad portfolio of core and value-added services. It also carries a level of risk because the MSP typically does not own the telecommunications network that supports the customer locations. Network speed, availability, and capacity become a core focus for the provider, because the hub is weakened if it loses a spoke. 

To ensure that the networks they are prescribing for their multi-location customers provide the highest level of security, stability, and availability, many MSPs utilize a high-speed network technology called Multiprotocol Label Switching (MPLS), which speeds up network traffic flow and makes it easier to manage the network for quality of service (QoS) performance for its users.

Considerations For Migrating Your Client To An MPLS Network

Now is a perfect time for MSPs to consider migrating multi-location customers to a managed MPLS network.  An important first step is to make a thorough assessment of your network service providers and grade them according to the following performance criteria:

  • Size, capacity, and footprint of their owned network; and the same for any network partners that they may be working with to serve your customer
  • Overall network performance history in terms of availability and speed
  • QoS performance and service level agreements (performance guarantees) offered
  • Quality and level of expertise of its support teams 
  • Experience and responsiveness of your account manager

Once the decision is made to consolidate providers, the MSP should following these steps to ensure a successful migration:

  • Develop a network diagram that maps how offices are connected. The diagram should indicate what type of traffic flows over the network: data, voice, and media/voice, and what the QoS requirements are in order of prioritization to the success of the business. It should also show the logical traffic flow between locations and users. The diagram should also show where voice traffic and Internet access can be centralized to reduce expense and capital expenditure needs for maintaining additional PBXs (private branch exchanges), and firewalls. 

Network Diagram

  • Prioritize traffic and network availability so that the most critical business applications get the highest QoS. Porting business applications to any new network should be based on their business impact. 
  • Create an employee migration plan to include a scheme of the technology and applications being used by each employee in the office, to determine which location systems require the most capacity. Mission-critical processes and applications will have priority and be deployed first.
  • Schedule the switchover to the new network during off hours or when availability is not critical.
  • Take a phased approach to turn up locations or employee groups on the new network based on business priority. 

Barriers To Accessing MPLS Have Come Down

One significant challenge for MSPs seeking to utilize MPLS networks is that access to them has not been ubiquitous — to the detriment of customers with locations across smaller regional markets. Large network operators don’t serve many of these markets and few local providers have the footprint or capacity to wholly support a multi-location business across several markets in one or multiple regions nationwide.

Historically, the scarcity of network providers that can serve smaller markets has obliged many MSPs to rely on a patchwork approach to connectivity, using two or more network providers. In some cases a mix of network access technologies, including MPLS and virtual private networks (VPN) running over the public Internet, support connectivity to the home office.

This fragmented approach also occurs when a company adds locations through acquisition and significant disparities in network service exist between the principal and acquired companies.

Supporting a multi-location customer over a multi-provider network may be a non-issue when everything is running smoothly. But, if something goes wrong, the challenges for the MSP can be formidable.  

Foremost is the fact that if any part of the network goes down or suffers a critical performance drop, the MSP will have to deal with numerous vendors to determine the root cause of the issue and get it resolved. This can lead to extended downtime, which in turn can disrupt customer business processes and workflows, reduce productivity and delay sales — all of which erode the customer’s bottom line and put the provider relationship at risk. 

Fortunately, MPLS networks managed by a single network operator are becoming more available to MSPs that serve businesses with locations in multiple smaller markets. Thanks to strategic MPLS network partnerships, providers that have served these markets over the years are now able to offer enterprise-grade bandwidth, secure connectivity with high availability, and QoS at every location. These providers also offer a single point of contact to support all locations, with professional network engineers to work through technical issues and resolve problems quickly. 

Today, managed network providers have MPLS services (and the network expertise to implement and support them) that MSPs can leverage to serve businesses with locations in practically any market. MSPs can now embrace MPLS with confidence and take network performance issues off their plates, freeing up more time to focus on driving value and business growth through technology.