Simplifying the Cloud and Deploying a Seamless Hybrid Data Center
Everyone thinks they understand the cloud. They often refer to it as an ephemeral, omnipresent thing where they can safely store their pictures. They’re not wrong, exactly, but they don’t know how it works. Even networking professionals are foggy on the potential of the cloud and act like it’s business as usual, deploying it with the same tools and strategies as any on-prem infrastructure.
But moving to the cloud requires more than slightly evolving your infrastructure while sticking to your original network design. It means rethinking your architecture and applications entirely.
I’m a senior network engineer at Skanska. Based in Stockholm, Sweden, we’re one of the world’s largest development and construction companies, with operations in the Nordic countries, Europe, and the United States. We’ve been at the forefront of the construction and engineering industries for 135 years and employ more than 30,000 people worldwide. Our company oversees most of the country’s large-scale public works and private building projects, and is one of the movers of the Swedish economy.
I joined Skanska in 2015 to plan and architect our hybrid data center and everything in it, including our on-prem hardware and public cloud infrastructure.
At that time, Skanska was using a legacy data center network. We started looking into a technical refresh of the network with new capabilities, and then got introduced to Cisco ACI (Application Centric Infrastructure). Back in 2016/2017, we did a PoC for Cisco ACI in our data centers, and we were impressed with all capabilities of the ACI fabric. In 2018 when the legacy network had reached end of life (EoL), we invested in an ACI production environment and have been more than satisfied ever since.
Stretching Our Network with Cisco
In 2021, Skanska was in the middle of building our private cloud. It was an elaborate project that presented a series of unique challenges. We had to align our data center and on-prem environments with the cloud, improve network segmentation and security, and accelerate IT operations without adding more interfaces to our daily tasks. We also wanted to standardize network tests and configuration tools.
We held discussions with every team to pave the way for a scalable environment that was easy to administer, and part of the process involved educating our colleagues. Network engineers think of the cloud differently from network managers. It’s not just swapping out routers; connecting a network to the cloud is far more complex, and we wanted everyone to understand that.
On top of using Cisco ACI, we had already deployed Cisco Cloud Network Controller, which provides secure and automated connectivity for multi-cloud networks. This allowed us to set up Cisco Nexus data center networking essentials to manage our infrastructure from a single pane of glass instead of using separate controllers for different environments. We were one of the first businesses in Europe to have this technology, and we started testing it, eventually adding four tenants to the network.
Cisco ACI and the Cisco Nexus switches allowed us to stretch our network, incorporating 28 leaves and four spines across two active-active data centers. This setup provides full redundancy and instantaneous failover. It is managed from a central console and incorporates software-defined automation to simplify our IT operations. We run Microsoft Azure infrastructure, which allows us to meet EU GDPR standards and mirrors our US infrastructure. If our European or American offices go offline, they can directly connect to the cloud on the other side of the ocean. Every application is fully redundant, and we can sleep better at night knowing that.
Cisco Cloud Network Controller has had an incredible impact at Skanska and revolutionized our workflows. I have full access to our entire network from wherever I am, and I can function as a senior solution engineer from Stockholm without traveling to our offices around the world to troubleshoot physical infrastructure.
We Went from Endless Meetings to a Single Dashboard
Maximizing the use of Cisco Cloud Network Controller has also changed how we work. We’ve become more efficient and now have time for planning. When I joined the company, we had meetings upon meetings that dragged on far beyond productivity limits and often lacked focus. We often went over the same topics, and little was accomplished. We now schedule one weekly meeting and can deal with all our network issues during that single block of time. We can plan better workflows and think ahead instead of holding frequent, unproductive meetings. We can also dedicate more time to learning the ins and outs of the solution as we go.
Cisco Cloud Network Controller is pretty revolutionary, and Cisco has been extremely helpful since day one. I sometimes think they helped us more than we needed! A Cisco team member would say, “Here’s how to do X,” or “This is the doc you need,” rather than letting us fumble around to find it ourselves. Cisco was there to lend support and nudge us in the right direction whenever we asked for assistance—and sometimes when we didn’t. Moving our data center to the cloud required us to alter our mindset, and Cisco helped us adapt to our new tools and become more flexible in managing our infrastructure.
Another benefit of working with Cisco is access to exclusive technology. I was right to want to learn about Cisco Cloud Network Controller—nothing else compares to it. Skanska looked at everything on the market, and no other platform offered the same flexibility, scalability, or ease of use. The closest competitor’s solution wasn’t compatible with all our applications and served mainly as a connector. It felt like a less capable version of Cisco SD-WAN. Cisco Cloud Network Controller runs independently on the cloud, which improves security, and connects to a single dashboard, so we don’t need separate GUIs or admin portals for our on-prem environment and our cloud.
A Demystified Cloud Experience
Cisco demystified and simplified the cloud for Skanska. Using Azure no longer feels like borrowing someone else’s infrastructure and building a data center there. Cisco Cloud Network Controller gives us complete control over our public cloud infrastructure, which is virtually indistinguishable from our on-prem equipment. When we deploy an application to the cloud, we no longer think of it as being “out there” because it works the same way as our on-site hardware.
The combination of Cisco ACI, Cisco Cloud Network Controller, and Cisco Nexus have made us more agile. Our business teams—the engineers who build our applications—have more flexibility because they can deploy an application on-prem or on the cloud depending on design and security constraints. Our Cisco technologies have also enabled us to flatten our learning curve by creating a single control point where we can configure and manage our cloud and on-prem infrastructure with minimal coding.
Having stretched our network and gained the flexibility of on-prem and cloud-based infrastructure, I can look back and speak from experience. I suggest everyone get to know the cloud before moving everything away from on-prem infrastructure. Analyze your needs and see whether cloud-based services can replace your on-prem applications. Don’t be afraid to choose a hybrid solution if it better meets your needs. Sometimes it’s easier and more cost-effective to maintain an on-prem service than lease a SaaS. When you look closely, it’s possible that you might not even need the cloud at all.
Moving our data center to the cloud was the right solution for Skanska, and Cisco is helping us make the most of it.