Unifying Legacy Networks and Building a Futureproof UK Backbone with Cisco
When you’re a technology services provider, you must find the right balance between meeting your customers’ current needs, ensuring the continuity of legacy operations, and laying down a solid foundation for the future. All of that can get complicated, requiring you to think strategically about how everything fits together when adding or replacing infrastructure.
The goal is always to maintain service levels and honour your commitments to existing customers when undergoing a transformational refresh. At M247, we always want to open the doors to technology that will attract new customers with different needs. Recently, we took steps to significantly improve our infrastructure—but improving what we had required us to build something new.
Harmonising Three Legacy Networks
M247 have always embraced opportunities to grow through mergers and acquisitions (M&As). However, this strategy can create some very specific network challenges.
As a result of combining companies, we had a number of heritage carrier networks that operated independently, using different vendor hardware, some of which didn't natively support IPv6 or MPLS. The three heritage networks were reaching capacity in available bandwidth and routing scale and our infrastructure had grown organically to add more connectivity as quickly as possible. We identified that, in order to continue to grow at pace and meet customer expectations, we needed a new network design that would eliminate the risk of network outages due to hardware and software issues directly related to the previous design. The combination of multiple vendor hardware and suboptimal design made expanding our network to support a standardised model of product delivery challenging and introduced additional complexity for our support teams.
We needed to harmonise these networks, and as the Network Solutions Architect for M247, I was tasked with designing a new UK backbone to underpin our strategy and continued growth. It was a fantastic opportunity to build something new, however it became apparent from early on that we had several challenges to overcome.
A Carrier-Grade Network with a Modular Design
We needed a carrier-grade network that supported existing customer solutions deployed across our existing network footprint. The network had to attract new customers, requiring greater flexibility, performance and value. Thinking more about how we maintain and operate the network and pave the way for future automation was also a key requirement. Central to this new design is a high bandwidth network interconnecting the Manchester and London areas, supporting fast convergence with always-on reliability, the ability to support market-leading SLAs, and a more flexible approach to guaranteeing service and application performance.
We also knew that we wanted to facilitate the future migration of our heritage networks across different business units, allowing us to offer better products and consistent services to our customers. All of this meant that we needed to start thinking differently about how we designed the network, which protocols we should research and adopt, and how we needed a more modern design to futureproof the scalability of the network.
We decided to follow best practice design principles by adopting technologies like Segment Routing, Unified MPLS and EVPN with a view to supporting controller-based SDN in the future. Embracing new and emerging technologies like 5G was a 'must have' of the highest priority. To ensure we didn’t disrupt existing operations, we decided to build new infrastructure that would run alongside our heritage networks.
We wanted to design a network that didn’t require a forklift upgrade every time we decided to support something new. That’s why we started to conceive a hierarchical and modular design that would permit us to upgrade components in a plug-and-play fashion without impacting services.
Standardising Our Infrastructure on Cisco
M247 has a longstanding history with Cisco. MetroNet, one of our three heritage networks, is built on Cisco Catalyst 6500 technology. We also have a heavy Cisco presence within the legacy M247 network and the Venus Telecommunications Business in London, which utilises a significant amount of Cisco equipment.
This pre-existing and strong relationship with Cisco meant that we already had a wealth of experience navigating Cisco's CLI and product portfolio. Cisco also has a wide range of carrier-grade routing solutions perfectly aligned with our new design philosophy. The company offers a combination of fixed and modular systems with enough port and IPv4/IPv6 routing capacity to scale as we grow, and Cisco’s price/performance ratio also puts the company ahead of the competition.
By selecting Cisco as the sole vendor for our UK backbone, and sticking with a single carrier-grade routing platform end-to-end, we can deploy and configure new services faster and with more consistency. By deploying the same network platform across the backbone and beyond, we can standardise the design and adopt the same automation principles and strategies across our entire network. We wouldn’t be able to do this as easily or as consistently in a mixed vendor environment.
As we move into the next phase of network re-design and harmonisation, we will continue to replace legacy hardware with Cisco routing and switching platforms. Standardising on this single vendor approach reduces complexity, removes the risk of vendor interoperability issues, increases stability, and also helps reduce our overall workload and training requirements.
We also took advantage of Cisco Capital financing, which was an extremely attractive option for the business. This project was originally CapEx heavy but through using Cisco Capital quickly became a more OpEx-based project financed over a longer period of time, and we used that model for the procurement of the entire new UK backbone. Cisco Capital gave us the flexibility that was more accommodating to our business needs—and something that no other vendor was able to offer at the time.
A Lot of Progress in a Short Time
I’m thrilled with our progress. Our dedicated infrastructure team helped to architect and deploy our new backbone network in parallel with our existing infrastructure. This approach eliminated potential conflicts and service disruptions, resulting in what was essentially a greenfield deployment.
We agreed from the get-go that this network would be designed and built in isolation. Leveraging funding earmarked as a long term transformational investment plan we would redesign the heritage networks and integrate them fully. As a result of this plan, we had the time and the opportunity to undertake the research and development to ensure the network design was exactly what we wanted. We didn’t have the constraints or pressures from other parts of the business, so we were never in danger of cutting corners to meet business expectations.
The plan took around eight months to execute, which was relatively quick. Most UK projects of this scale take a year or more. But having a small team and using a single vendor prevented a too-many-cooks scenario. Before the network went live or hosted any customer traffic, we had the luxury of building for the future and implementing a proper project plan, including patching schedules, high- and low-level infrastructure designs, network testing documentation, and in-house training.
The initial rollout of Cisco's routing platform happened toward the end of 2020, and our backbone is now 100% operational. We have entered the next phase of the project and are working on the R&D and design exercises needed to migrate our heritage networks to the new core infrastructure. We have already ordered new equipment for the first of our three heritage networks and starting to complete the next phase of migration work.
Improving Our Products and Services and Growing Our Business with Cisco
Moving to Cisco has allowed M247 to refine our unique selling proposition (USP). We can support extremely low latency across the entire network, coupled with high bandwidth, high routing scale, and fast network convergence. These are prerequisites for 5G-ready and IoT applications. Our dedicated private cloud infrastructure is directly connected into this new backbone, allowing us to provide customers with a fully managed private or hybrid public/private cloud solution, underpinned by the high bandwidth, low latency and fast converging benefits inherent in this infrastructure. When purchased with our more traditional DIA, L2/L3 MPLS VPN and SD-WAN connectivity products, this provides our customers with a complete solution to reduce infrastructure and management complexity, reduce overhead, and provide a single supplier solution to help customers support their mission critical applications or help in their digital transformation initiatives.
Thanks to Cisco, M247 is finding new ways to provide the glue that binds our customers’ IT needs. We are laying the groundwork for future services and paving the way for innovative new features, capabilities, and products. There’s a real buzz in the air as our teams discover new and exciting ways to use the new UK backbone to serve our customers better and grow our business.