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Future proofing the branch network

As the COVID-19 crisis drags on, the path that many of us will take back to work is far from certain. But one thing we can be sure of is that the future of work will look very different to its past.

This is certainly the case for office workers, but it also holds true for the millions of Australians who work from retail outlets, car dealerships, cafes, gyms, and any of the other thousands of different types of branch locations.

The COVID crisis has emphasised the need for flexibility in how we use our workspaces, and branch locations are no exception. We see this today in banks, where branch staff are taking contact centre calls during quiet times. We've also seen changes in retail, where shops are being turned into fulfilment centres for click-and-collect and delivery services.

Another of the key trends impacting branch offices is the need for locations that can be set up and taken back down at a moment's notice. Pop-up stores, kiosks, caravans, and even food-trucks are becoming a more common fixtures in locations such as shopping centres, sporting events, parks, and high streets.

While in the past all of these branch locations tended to work autonomously, often now we see them tied into corporate networks or accessing cloud-based apps. This is putting greater pressure on wide area network connections to carry higher volumes of more critical traffic.

And that means network managers need to be asking whether the networks that connect all these locations are up to the tasks being asked of then.

Flexible brand scenarios

The popularity of short-term locations has been a clear trend within Australian business for the better part of a decade. The temporary nature of these sites makes them naturally reliant on remote services for applications such as point-of-sale, inventory and workforce management, digital signage content, and more.

But their shared trait of only being around for a good time – not a long time – creates a need for networking infrastructure that can be set up and pulled down quickly, and with as little involvement from the IT team as possible – especially for more far-flung locations.

The need for greater connectivity is also becoming more apparent in traditional branch offices. End users are now accessing numerous applications in both private and public clouds. Video and web-based conferencing is now an accepted way of connecting managers to remote staff. Sites may also be routing their CCTV footage back over a network connection for active monitoring. And some might be enticing customers with free guest Wi-Fi.

This change again raises immediate questions about whether branch network connections have the bandwidth to carry what is expected of them, or whether these connections can be reconfigured quickly when those needs change. For example, someone downloading a 4K video on a guest Wi-Fi service shouldn't be doing so at the expense of the same branch location's point-of-sale system.

The Liquid Infrastructure solution

At Optus, our solution to the changing needs of the branch office is called Liquid Infrastructure.

We've named it Liquid Infrastructure because it evokes thoughts of fluidity and flexibility, but what we are really describing is a networking infrastructure which is adaptable to the needs of modern businesses.

That means that branch sites can be deployed, provisioned, and secured quickly from a central location, and deprovisioned just as fast.

 It also means that a remote network manager now has at their fingertips all the information they need to see how network connections are being used and how they are performing, and they can make adjustments accordingly. With analytics built into the network itself, Liquid Infrastructure can provide the insight that an administrator needs to ensure that everything is working as it should, and a path to a speedy resolution when it isn't.

Liquid Infrastructure is built on software-defined network (SDN) functionality and operates as two layers. Firstly, is the underlay, which provides the flexibility that network managers need to reconfigure bandwidth allocation, including dynamic acquisition of bandwidth, based on the needs of the applications they are running.

Sitting above this then is the overlay, which could be a software-defined WAN such as a Cisco Meraki or Viptela solution, or a software-defined LAN or wireless LAN. These overlay networking solutions provide the necessary endpoint access for cameras, videoconferencing systems, remote access management solutions, payments terminals, or any number of other networked devices for which security and quality of service are critical.

Today we offer site connectivity using the Optus software-defined ethernet service and 4G network, with software-defined internet and 5G services on the roadmap in the near term. We can even logically aggregate different bandwidth types as needed to create a single managed virtual connection.

With the ability to orchestrate both the under and overlay networks, Liquid Infrastructure policies can be made effective on both layers simultaneously, simplifying the work of network managers. We also have plans to develop a new API-based services that will run on Liquid Infrastructure which will enable new network analytics capabilities and other management features.

Our ambition with Liquid Infrastructure is to create an end-to-end network offering that is as close to zero-touch as possible, delivering incredible flexibility and agility from the centre to the edge, with the potential to self-heal if a connection is lost.

The Future of Branch Networks is Flexibility

Even before the pandemic hit, people's expectations and needs for branch locations were changing. In the year 2021 and beyond, flexibility will be critical for ensuring organisations have their people and services in exactly the right places at the times they need them.

For network managers, the goal is to be able to deploy and manage bandwidth as needed – often at a moment's notice – but without the effort and aggravation that has typified provisioning remote locations in the past.

Through innovation such as Liquid Infrastructure, we are bringing flexibility to life for our customers, and helping them prepare for whatever the future throws at them.

Visit the Optus Liquid Infrastructure page for more detail: Software Defined Networks – Optus Enterprise & Business.