Editor’s Corner—Comcast Business’ SD-WAN is cable’s moment to chip away at telcos’ business empire

digital transformation
Sean Buckley, FierceTelecom

Comcast Business finally took the covers off its much-talked-about SD-WAN service recently, marking the first step in the cable MSO's network virtualization plans. By creating this network virtualization platform, the cable MSO positions itself further to develop future virtual services and take a bigger bite out of the incumbent telcos’ long-standing business services empire.

With this service, Comcast Business can now provide its growing roster of medium-sized and large business customers with a service that can run over multiple broadband and traditional fiber-based network pipes.

Internally, the service also represents a sea change in Comcast’s broader network. SD-WAN is the first service that will be delivered on the Comcast Business ActiveCore SDN platform, which the cable MSO is touting as one of the first cable-delivered, gigabit-ready SDN platforms.

Kevin O'Toole, SVP of product management for Comcast Business, told FierceTelecom that its entry into SD-WAN and SDN illustrates a broader shift.  

“SD-WAN and gig broadband access is creating what we dubbed internally is a generational moment,” O’Toole said. “There’s times in our industry where we have these before-and-after moments. We think like circuit to packet, this is one of those before-and-after moments.”

The way Comcast Business sees it, the MSO’s architecture is based on three pillars: It’s paired with gigabit speeds, fully orchestrated and hosted in its cloud for a multitenant and multi-VNF environment, and it has an emphasis on software.

“There’s this amazing opportunity to drain complexity out of the IT manager’s problem each day and we manifest through our digital experience,” O’Toole said. “We invested heavily in creating a platform with an eye towards a single pane of glass with multiple VNFs and get the most important information to the customer’s hands as soon as possible.”

Coupling gigabit broadband, Ethernet

A big focus for Comcast Business is that it is coupling the SD-WAN offering with its growing array of not only fiber-based Ethernet but also DOCSIS-based 1 Gbps offerings. Only a few weeks before it launched the SD-WAN service, the cable MSO launched its DOCSIS 3.1 1 Gbps speed service for businesses and consumers across multiple markets.  

Comcast’s Business Internet 1 Gbps service is already available in much of the Northeastern, Mid-Atlantic and Central United States, and will be available to the entire national Comcast service area by the end of 2017.

Roopa Honnachari, industry director of business communication services & cloud computing services at Frost & Sullivan, said pairing the SD-WAN service with gigabit services makes sense as it ensures customers in Comcast's region will have a high-speed pipe that can support their changing application needs.

“I particularly like the cable-based Gig speeds they are offering with their SD-WAN,” Honnachari said.

At the same time, the service provider will work with other broadband partners, including its fellow cable providers. Previously, Comcast Business established agreements with cable operators to launch its WAN service for medium business customers. However, Comcast Business DOCSIS 3.1-based services in conjunction with SD-WAN may not be the best fit for larger businesses that want a fiber connection.

While the DOCSIS 3.1-based business expansion will likely resonate, particularly with larger customers that require the associated symmetrical bandwidth, QoS guarantees and SLAs that come with its current fiber-based Ethernet dedicated internet service.

Having an array of fiber and DOCSIS 3.1 options in hand will give business customers choices to bundle service and much higher speeds than what they have been accustomed to for MPLS.

O’Toole said that the SD-WAN story coupled with gigabit speeds resonated well with his company's beta customers. 

“You have some many IT leaders who in 2017 are still trying to torture kilobits per second through an MPLS network over T-1s,” O’Toole said. “When you look at them and say what would you do with 100 Mbps or 1 Gbps it stops them and they have a generational point to reconsider how they run their business.”

Focus on hybrid networking

Since most business customers, particularly larger businesses, still have a large embedded MPLS base, Comcast will help customers transition to SD-WAN via a hybrid method. By using Comcast Business SD-WAN on the ActiveCore platform, customers can augment or replace their existing MPLS network with an alternative WAN connection.

Comcast Business SD-WAN combines secure IP-VPN, application-aware routing and a stateful network firewall, which monitors the state of active connections and uses this information to determine which network packets to allow through the firewall. Using Comcast’s broadband solutions, the SD-WAN service can be delivered over the public internet.

“Some customers will start in a hybrid mode at one location and as they get more comfortable with what SD-WAN will do, they may bleed down traffic on their MPLS network and someday it just won’t be there,” O’Toole said.

But what the SD-WAN service really does for Comcast is it makes it an even more competitive threat to the traditional telcos. While these operators still have arguably the lion's share of large business accounts, Comcast Business can now be a bigger threat to telcos without a large amount of heavy lifting. This is because service providers like Comcast can use any broadband connection to power SD-WAN.

That’s not to say that incumbents aren’t making SD-WAN moves. AT&T, CenturyLink, Verizon and Windstream have all introduced some form of SD-WAN. Windstream, which purchased EarthLink and Broadview, is serving up a Unified Communications and SD-WAN bundle for small and medium-sized businesses. Meanwhile, CenturyLink and Verizon maintain that while SD-WAN is clearly important to their future business revenue streams, MPLS service is still profitable.

Still, the challenges for traditional telcos are twofold: managing legacy service declines and replacing them with newer services like SD-WAN and Ethernet, a problem that newcomers like Comcast Business don't have.

Tom Nolle, principal of Cimi Group, said in a blog post that Comcast Business’ SD-WAN can be run over not only its own network but that of other partner provider networks.  

“The problem is that SD-WAN services can be deployed by MSPs and the users themselves, over telco Internet services, and so cannibalize to at least a degree the traditional 'virtual-private' LAN and network/WAN business,” Nolle said.

Nolle added that the real advantage Comcast Business has over telcos is that they don’t have a legacy service base they could cannibalize.

“Comcast isn’t an incumbent in VPN/VLAN services so they have no reason to hold back. In fact, they could in theory offer SD-WANs that span the globe by riding on competitive Internet services,” Nolle said.

SD-WAN may arguably still be a nascent service, but the opportunity for Comcast Business and other fellow cable MSOs is clear: beating the telcos at their own business game. —  Sean | @FierceTelecom