Q&A—Comcast Business' SD-WAN customers want more 'nerd knobs' to better track their networks

"We have the ability to innovate on the digital transformation at its own pace," says Jeff Lewis, VP of connectivity services. (Comcast Business)

Comcast Business' SD-WAN service recently celebrated its first birthday, but there's plenty of room for it to grow, according to two executives.

Comcast Business went into the SD-WAN space with an overlay offering powered by Versa Networks and with no skin in the MPLS game. That—plus the fact that Comcast has one of the largest backbones in the U.S.—allows it to offer SD-WAN in a different light than its competitors, according to Jeff Lewis, vice president of connectivity services, Comcast Business.

The provider first launched its SD-WAN service as a virtualized network function (VNF) on its SDN-enabled ActiveCore platform with the plan to offer more VNFs down the road.

"We're going to come hard with security," Lewis said in this interview with FierceTelecom. "I don't know if we'll have a second security VNF before the end of the year, but we're going to try real hard.

"We're going to have a standalone routing platform and then we're going to try to augment that with other vendors throughout the year. And then we're looking at other virtualized services to augment that."

RELATED: Comcast Business executive says SD-WAN, MPLS will continue to coexist

Comcast Business' SD-WAN service is a fully hosted, fully orchestrated solution that is paired with the service provider's DOCSIS 3.1-based gigabit service, which also separates it from other service provider SD-WAN offerings. And unlike AT&T, CenturyLink and Verizon, Comcast Business didn't have an MPLS service offering to protect when it launched SD-WAN.

In this Q&A, which was edited for length and clarity, Lewis and Jody Hagemann, director of product management, Comcast Business, talk about how the SD-WAN service has evolved over the past year.

FierceTelecom: What have you learned since you launched SD-WAN?

Jeff Lewis: Our expectations from our early customer engagements was that hybrid networking—where MPLS networks would stay in place and that we'd come in with a broadband capability and then overlay SD WAN on that and create hybrid networks—would be the rule of the day.

I think across the board that while we still see that in handfuls of engagements, especially those larger companies that have deep contracts and agreements with those types of businesses, we have been quite surprised at the number of customers who have said "Hey, the minute the (MPLS) contract is up, I want out." So the idea of hybrid networking without MPLS, but with more of dual broadband from two different broadband providers or single broadband provider is a more prevalent ask. That has been a surprise to us.

The other part that I would offer is the ability to secure information from customers. The service delivery engagement with customers, especially smaller customers who don't have deep IT experience where they may have been getting support from some third party for some kind of product.

Some businesses didn't even know what BGP was. What we're finding is, especially for the smaller or modest sized opportunities with maybe 20 to 25 sites, is they are substantially challenged in terms of being able to cleanly provide information to us In terms of how do we configure the network with them?

So it's a little bit more lengthy in terms of that engagement and it's driving us into other considerations about how we can potentially support the customer because it is pretty clear that as the technology gets a little bit more sophisticated, many, many, many, many customers are still in old models. It's just kind of interesting to see how their outfit from a staffing perspective and what they know.

When you deal with larger-sized customers, they have much more robust support staff, and as complex as those solutions can get on an implementation, the flow of information back and forth with our service delivery people is a lot easier.

FierceTelecom: What features do your SD-WAN customers want, such as segmentation or more analytics?

Lewis: We have the ability to innovate on the DX (digital transformation) at its own pace, separate from feature releases, which is very different from a hardware model where you typically don't change anything until you have major or minor releases.

Early on we started engaging with customers and the ones in our digital experience really liked it, but they found that they wanted access to more information. They coined a phrase saying, "You know, we want more nerd knobs." So Jody, can you describe that?

Jody Hagemann: So from a "nerd knob" perspective, we continued to enhance latencies, packet loss and jitter metrics between sites. Customers also want to do network planning. They want to see usage over time. They bought the analytics that stand beyond the Comcast network. If they are in a hybrid mode, they want to be able to see analytics on their MPLS network and they want to be able to bring it all together in one single pane of glass so that they can say "This is my entire VPN." They want analytics that go past their SD-WAN network and deep into their hybrid networks as well.

FierceTelecom: So how has Comcast Business enabled that for them?

Lewis: We just pull APIs off of our core network as well as the controller complexes in our initial case off of the Versa complex. We're pulling those into an analytics engine which then spits out the data pieces that Jody was just detailing in terms of packet loss, latency, jitter, and delay.

We haven't launched this, but we're actually correlating all four of those into something that we're internally calling a "WAN score" to give the customer a sense of their performance, and not only of their transport layer but also the application that is actually running across that as well.

We also just recently delivered another variation of traffic steering, which was one of those benchmark things that we needed to get out. We've got traffic steering out the network now and so the customers can route traffic anywhere they want across the multiple WAN ports.

What I just want to kind reinforce for you, what Jody just highlighted, is that a customer specific ask turns into several customers asks. The way we are able to manipulate the digital experience by pulling from the network enabled us to do that outside of the release of the SD-WAN product itself.

Our digital experience lives on its own. We can manipulate the data within the DX that we have created, which is the whole user experience in a separate release train from anything that we would be doing in terms of exposing more Versa features. It's the fact that at the beginning we said we don't want to port a Versa DX in front of a customer.

That's too complicated and it doesn't really correlate a whole a lot. It's separate from anything you might get from the underlay. What would happen if you were able to bring those two together and present them in a logical fashion?

Our solution is completely separate from the network in that it's an over-the-top solution. Over the top allows us to go anywhere in the United States. If we had explicitly tied it into the underlay network, it would have been almost impossible to go outside of our footprint, or outside of our footprint easily.

The second thing was, technically speaking, we built it over the top because if we ever found the need or wanted to look at another SD-WAN provider, you just bring that other provider in and they'll come right over the top. It's a seamless evolution on our architecture.