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

ORLANDO—Comcast Business remains confident that it can capture a large chunk of the emerging SD-WAN market, but foresees its business customers operating in a a hybrid network that will consist of both SD-WAN and MPLS services. 

Kevin O’Toole, SVP of product management for Comcast Business, told attendees during the MEF 17 event that the carrier sees the hybrid WAN concept existing for several years.

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

“Fundamentally, SD-WAN is going to challenge the MPLS market,” O’Toole said. “MPLS is not going away overnight and 15 years from now we’re going to be in a room like this and there will still be people using MPLS.”

While MPLS had utility for businesses when bandwidth and device utilization was relegated to a few megabits, a phone, and some computers, most businesses today operate dozens of devices that a typical T-1 connection can’t handle.

Comcast believes that the advent of gigabit and above speeds will enable business customers to better handle their networking needs.

“MPLS was a brilliant technology in its day, but the reality is it was built in an era when you had tens of devices accessing a few applications and bandwidth measured in kilobits,” O’Toole said. “We’re now in a world where hundreds of devices or thousands of devices are accessing hundreds of applications with bandwidth measured in gigabits.”

Contrarian approach

Following the rollout of its own Active Core SDN-based network, the service provider recently set an aggressive path to deploy SD-WAN, a service it can deliver to business customers via its HFC and fiber networks.

But what’s different about Comcast Business’ approach is that the cable MSO is delivering SD-WAN in an over the top model.

RELATED: Comcast Business pairs new SD-WAN offering with 1 Gbps DOCSIS 3.1 business data services

O’Toole said that while Comcast Business’ approach is different than others, it will allow it to rapidly scale the service in tandem with the growth in bandwidth needs.

“What’s a bit of surprise is that as a last-mile cable provider, we built it over the top,” O’Toole said. “I am not saying we’ll never do Layer-2/3 management and stitching together, but we looked at the gigabit world and said we don’t think that’s best use of money right now.”  

O’Toole added that “it’s a bit contrarian for a network operator, but we’ll see where the world takes us.”

Like others building SDN-based networks, SD-WAN is just one of several services that Comcast Business foresees the network can enable.

“We’ll add more virtualized functions down the road,” O’Toole said in an interview with FierceTelecom. “Active Core is the platform and SD-WAN is the first product, but you can be you’ll see other products sitting on the back of the Active Core platform.”

Gig speeds are an enabler

In tandem with its SDN network, Comcast has been expanding the reach of its DOCSIS 3.1-based 1 Gbps network to more businesses in its territory, a factor that will enable it to extend SD-WAN and other services deeper into its customer base.

Earlier this month, Comcast Business extended its “Business Internet 1 Gig” and “Business Internet 500” speed tiers to business customers in the West, Central, Mid-Atlantic and Northeast service areas using the company’s existing HFC and DOCSIS-based network.

Although Comcast has a sizeable growing fiber-based network, the ability to leverage the HFC networks enables the cable MSO to rapidly enable a larger base of its business customer base with 1 Gbps service.

“This is not a gigabit to tall shiny buildings or places that have fiber, it’s a gig of bandwidth to virtually every business and home I our service territory,” O’Toole said. “It’s unheard of to go to a doctor’s office and plug in a gigabit of bandwidth.”

One of the realities is that there are still a large majority of businesses that are still using 1.5 Mbps T-1 circuits. These circuits not only are limited in bandwidth, but can be very expensive to buy. Additionally, the provisioning times for additional circuits can often be lengthy.

Just how has the 1 Gbps and SD-WAN products impacted Comcast Business customers?

One of the network heads for a national restaurant chain told Comcast Business that cooks accessing Pandora over its T-1 network had been a big bandwidth hog.

“This customer told me that a big problem was Pandora,” O’Toole said. “It turns out line cooks like to listen to music while preparing food and when you’re dealing with a hairpin MPLS network running over T-1 circuits, music streaming brings your network to its knees.”

Comcast Business sees other applications stemming off its DOCSIS 3.1 network in areas like security and surveillance.

It is in a public-private initiative called Project Greenlight with the city of Detroit to work with small businesses to source surveillance for the police. A small business can voluntarily grant access to the security camera so when they’re responding to a 911 call or another issue, the police can get access in real-time.

“These are the kind of applications that are enabled by bandwidth and the cloud,” O’Toole said. “The reach of the broadband network makes things possible that weren’t possible before.”