Comcast Business launches SD-WAN beta trial, signals broader virtualization process

Comcast made what may be the cable industry’s initial foray into the burgeoning SD-WAN market, announcing that it has begun a beta trial for midmarket and large enterprise business customers.

The cable MSO, which has been expanding its focus on larger businesses, says its SD-WAN offering combines gigabit speeds with the agility of software-defined networks. Targeting a full market launch later this year, Comcast Business' SD-WAN beta trial will continue throughout the summer.

RELATED: Comcast, Charter, other MSOs remain mum on SD-WAN plans, but analysts say cable has great potential

Kevin O’Toole, SVP of product management for Comcast Business, told FierceTelecom that as the service provider looked at what solutions it could provide to larger businesses’ remote sites besides access, it found that MPLS was not the optimal fit.

Comcast Business O'Toole Image: Comcast
Kevin O'Toole

“We really had to ask ourselves how we were going to handle branch office solutions beyond transport, how we were going to move beyond Layer-2 to get into branch office networking and application prioritization and all the things that have been handled by MPLS,” O’Toole said. “We have never had to apologize for TDM or T1s and we could always talk about broadband, hosted voice or whatever the lean-forward answer was, and the lean-forward answer is SD-WAN.”

Having a combination of SD-WAN capabilities and broadband and Ethernet network services creates an offering for midmarket and large enterprises investing in hybrid WAN solutions. O’Toole said that the cable MSO’s SD-WAN offering reflects its broader movement to equip more of its network with SDN.

“I think we have made some very good choices as it relates to building an SDN platform that’s fully scalable, fully hosted and built to see beyond SD-WAN and see SDN for what it needs to be for customers to run their network,” O’Toole said.

However compelling SD-WAN is, Comcast Business is cognizant that businesses have different philosophies about how they want to migrate to the new technology. As part of the beta trial, the MSO is inviting customers to test different SD-WAN configurations: implementing MPLS and SD-WAN connections side by side and putting MPLS on one side and letting the SD-WAN controller manage the traffic on the broadband or MPLS connection.

“We’ll work with our customers to learn how you get off MPLS, recognizing there’s been no technology that’s ever been out there at the scale of MPLS that went away overnight,” O’Toole said. “We’re going to work with our customers on how you bridge into the new world.”

Multiservice approach

While the SD-WAN concept has been gaining a lot of attention, Comcast sees it as part of a platform from which it can launch various services such as managed security and network monitoring. Leveraging its SDN network infrastructure, SD-WAN will become one of several virtual network functions Comcast Business will be able to offer to its customers. This would enable Comcast Business to orchestrate virtual services across its vendor platforms.

Lewis Comcast Business Image: Comcast
Jeff Lewis

“We went at it saying we need to support a fully orchestrated environment across applications that we know are prevalent in the market like unified threat management, virtualized session border controller functionality, WAN acceleration, and other things we know are there,” said Jeff Lewis, VP of communications services for Comcast Business. “We needed an architecture that would allow us to seamlessly orchestrate whether they were in our partner’s stack or not.”

Part of the provider’s multiservice SDN approach is reflected in its SD-WAN vendor. Comcast Business chose Versa Networks, a provider of next-generation, software-based networking and security solutions, as its main SD-WAN platform. Versa has gained market momentum working with a number of Tier 1 service providers like CenturyLink, which is using the vendor’s platform for its SD-WAN offering. Lewis said what set Versa apart from others in the crowded SD-WAN space is that the vendor can enable multiple service sets.

“Versa was brought on board because we felt that they were the leader at the gate in terms of being able to scale broadly across a carrier-class network,” Lewis said. “Some of the other guys out there are good at doing SD-WAN and that’s it.”

While an SD-WAN-only approach works as a near-term fix for business customers with multiple satellite offices, the challenge comes when these vendors have to bolt on other solutions to support additional service requests.

“We have met some customers who have deployed SD-WAN-only solutions, but when you ask them about the next thing they say we did not think about that because that’s not where the state-of-the-art thinking in the industry has been,” Lewis said. “SD-WAN gets cornered into a single solution and then they’ll do special integration with the business customer’s favorite unified threat management partner, but then there’s nothing else beyond that.”

Gigabit moves

In tandem with the SD-WAN trial, Comcast Business is rolling out Business Internet 1000, a DOCSIS 3.1-based gigabit internet service, for business customers and plans to offer it throughout its service area. The company said that business service revenue growth was primarily due to an increase in the number of small business customers, as well as continued growth in medium-sized business services. Business Internet 1000 service will complement Comcast Business’ existing suite of fiber-based Ethernet services.

“The DOCSIS 3.1 service is out there in a handful of regions, and we’ll continue to expand that over time as part of Comcast’s overall deployment strategy,” O’Toole said. “This will also work on top of our dedicated Ethernet internet product and on third-party out-of-region partner products so it’s not super-glued to our network or our SD-WAN product.”

While having 1 Gbps speeds is compelling, the service provider said that customers are just as keen to access solutions that are bundled with 100 Mbps or 200 Mbps speed broadband services. Traditionally, businesses that purchase MPLS services from telcos and CLECs were stuck with much slower 1.5 Mbps T-1 circuit speeds. Lewis said that Comcast Business could address 70% to 80% of most of its business customer’s needs over its HFC-based network.

“While the conversation around the gig has captured a lot of people’s attention, the ability to bundle 100 Mbps, 200 Mbps compared to a two T-1 MPLS solution really challenges business customer’s precepts,” Lewis said.

Being able to offer 1 Gbps service over its HFC network for business customers makes sense, particularly as the service provider sees ongoing growth in the segment. Comcast overall has continued to expand the reach of its DOCSIS 3.1 platform for its consumer customers throughout its footprint. Extending the DOCSIS 3.1 capabilities to business customers makes sense as Comcast has continued to make inroads with not only small to medium sized businesses but also to medium and larger businesses.

Comcast Business’ aggressive network and service expansion efforts certainly paid off in the first quarter as the service provider saw revenues rise 13.6% to $1.5 billion. Business services now make up $6 billion in annual revenue for Comcast.