NaaS – enterprise networking as an innovation platform

Network as a service (NaaS) applies a cloud-like provisioning model to enterprise networking, enabling on-demand, scalable connectivity and value-added services via a self-service portal. This surface-level proposition has a very clear attraction – deploy a network in an as-a-service, pay-as-you-go model, and a third party will manage it for you.

At the risk of saying, “One more thing”, NaaS can offer so much more beyond what’s generally being marketed. Below, we will discuss why NaaS can enable large organizations to innovate in a way that has not been previously possible. In short, it unlocks the full potential of the Cloud. 

NaaS picks up what Cloud left behind

Let’s first consider cloud-based provisioning. While it is difficult to quantify how much innovation the Cloud has brought to large enterprises compared to on-premises workloads, it has enabled tens of thousands of startups to get their product off the ground via its lowered barrier to entry. In the Cloud, startups can build out a working environment, create a minimum viable product (MVP), scale up, fail fast, and iterate as they go, to access otherwise unavailable IT infrastructure with little upfront costs.

Unlike compute and storage, networking has not been part of the Cloud providers’ strategy. This absence manifests as a range of challenges for connecting hybrid environments and has given birth to a range of cloud networking solutions, not least NaaS. Networking is also the missing component that can enable Cloud providers to deliver full-stack infrastructure services rather than individual components. 

NaaS can finally offer large enterprises what the Cloud has been unable to deliver – globally distributed and interconnected infrastructure. The key here is that beyond the core network, NaaS providers also operate globally distributed points of presence (i.e. network entry points), which behave like mini data centers at the edge, capable of not only running networking and security appliances but also compute and storage.

In other words, NaaS offers multinational enterprises the opportunity to leverage full-stack, globally distributed infrastructure as a service. This provides the opportunity to experiment with large projects, scale them up geographically as needed, and adjust with agility. Without the network working as flexibly as compute, storage and higher-level services (such as information management), the flexibility of cloud inevitably hits bottlenecks around data movement. Take these away, or at least enable them to be addressed in the same way as managing other cloud resources, and innovation can flourish. 

Globally distributed infrastructure at your service

NaaS doesn’t stop there – the globally distributed network infrastructure and points of presence, combined with the orchestration capabilities and as-a-service consumption, enable NaaS vendors to enter multiple arenas. The most obvious ones revolve around security, notably including access mechanisms such as Secure Access Service Edge (SASE) and/or Secure Service Access (SSA), whose core functionality is also connectivity. But also, NaaS vendors can make services such as edge compute and content delivery available using their existing infrastructure.

For example, an enterprise can leverage its NaaS vendor’s edge compute capabilities to deploy a latency-sensitive application close to the users. With multi-cloud networking, the application can also implement cloud bursting capabilities or simply run larger or non-latency-sensitive computations. If the organization then wants to add additional security features such as zero trust and routing traffic through a Cloud Access Security Broker (CASB), the NaaS vendor can also deliver on this. Do you also want to add video streaming to this secured edge application? NaaS has the platform to support your needs.

To support this Cloud-like model for provisioning networking infrastructure, NaaS vendors also cater to the equivalent development audience – NetDevOps. While most NaaS vendors expose their services via APIs, it’s also worth noting integrations with infrastructure-as-code tooling and CI/CD pipelines. This code-based approach to managing networks can help deliver on the promise of on-demand scalability and flexibility that’s required when the network becomes a component of the application.

We don’t expect or suggest that NaaS needs to become a hyper-solution that combines multiple high-level products under one umbrella. The point here is that having access to globally distributed infrastructure can unlock a lot of innovation opportunities, which are not available in the Cloud, or if the network is fully insourced. 

After all, the as-a-service consumption model means that there is very little financial and technical risk to deploying a NaaS solution. Being informed about this technology and having it at your disposal is a key business enabler for the 2020s.

NaaS for the future

Given its clear benefit and reduced overheads through pay-as-you-go pricing, there is no way around NaaS in the medium term. For most, if not all enterprises, it only makes sense to have a NaaS at your disposal, even if you are not actively investing in the service. And just as the future is hybrid for the Cloud, with enterprises mixing and matching between on-premises and cloud-based workloads, so is the future hybrid for NaaS and in-house network management. 

But let’s not ignore the tremendous value-add that NaaS provides besides connectivity. Vendors in the space are aware of their potential and are actively investing in these value-add services. If you need to make your network more agile and have also been doing multi-cloud gymnastics to deliver applications across geographies, NaaS can kill these two birds with one billing line item. 

Our recommendation might be “come on in, the water’s warm”, but we would sound a note of caution – NaaS vendor selection may start out as tactical, but could quickly become strategic when decision-makers start reaping its rewards. So, look for a provider that can fit the bill in the short term but also one that can scale, both in capability and service levels, as your needs progress. 

Other than that, this is also a good moment to start developing the cross-skills, for example, across networking and security, so that the clear benefits are not undermined by in-house siloed teams. Apart from that, there is no time like the present to look at NaaS both for existing and new networking needs.