(or…why you should check out MEF’s Global NaaS Event (GNE) from October 2nd to 4th in Dallas, TX)
Network-as-a-service (NaaS) has been around for many years, with a surge during the arrival of software-defined networking (SDN) and a programmatic reimagining of networking about a decade ago. Today, we’re seeing a resurgence even as we grapple with multiple definitions of NaaS in the market. In this short article, I’ll discuss the flavors of NaaS, why it matters, why it doesn’t matter, and why seeking the one true NaaS is folly and unnecessary.
The Cornucopia and Cacophony of NaaS
The term NaaS encapsulates a broad range of services, which has continued to broaden over the last decade. Here are the most prominent ones:
- On-demand Wide-Area Network (WAN) services: Typically offered by Communication Service Providers (CSPs), these services allow rapid scaling of WAN capabilities. They may include MPLS/EVPN-type services or just broadband internet.
- Cloud-based Networking: Enables on-demand networking resources within or across multiple cloud environments.
- Managed Campus WiFi and LAN: Focuses on networking within a specific physical location, such as a university or corporate campus. Local area networking could eventually be merged under a larger umbrella of fully managed enterprise LAN/WAN connectivity.
- On-demand SD-WAN/SASE Services: Provides software-defined WAN capabilities, which can include optional security Secure Access Services Edge (SASE) capabilities.
- Mobile Network Slice as a Service: Allows enterprises to get dedicated end-to-end virtual 5G networks sliced from a shared physical infrastructure.
- Neutral Host Infrastructure Services: Offers infrastructure capabilities without allegiance to any single network provider.
Despite its multiplicity, the question remains: do we need to consolidate these disparate services under a single NaaS umbrella, or can they coexist with a set of common core attributes coupled with diverse additional capabilities?
Comparing and Contrasting SaaS with NaaS
Before we discuss the answer to that question, I’d point out that people vexed by NaaS not having a single definition are perfectly fine with Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) being a multifaceted offering, encompassing everything from email and productivity tools, complex enterprise resource planning systems, human resources information systems, diagramming tools, to project management tools and much more. We have been okay with that diversity, and if NaaS is the network equivalent of SaaS, why should we be bothered by NaaS representing many different flavors of networking services?
Shared Attributes between NaaS and SaaS/IaaS/PaaS
SaaS and its brethren, infrastructure-as-a-service (IaaS) and platform-as-a-service (PaaS), represent different levels of abstraction of computing and application services but share business and consumption models.
Across these as-a-service models, including NaaS, there are common attributes:
- Short-Term Commitments: These services are on-demand or require shorter-term contracts (though many providers offer discounts for upfront credit purchases or longer-term subscriptions).
- Quick Provisioning: Designed for rapid deployment, scaling, testing, and experimentation.
- Consumption-Based Pricing: Billing aligns with usage, with a pay-as-you-go model.
- Low Capital Expenditure: Minimal upfront costs for enterprises to use these services. The costs may be amortized into the subscription fees if any dedicated hardware is required.
- Fully Managed or Partially Managed: Most services come with some level of managed support, either partially managed or fully managed, so enterprises don’t have to worry about provisioning, patching, upgrades, or other maintenance tasks.
These key attributes have made as-a-service models popular with enterprises (and consumers), providing businesses with increased agility and scalability, sparking innovation and creativity, and enabling faster time-to-market and time-to-revenue.
Differences Between NaaS and Other as-a-Service Models
Other as-a-service offerings are hosted in centralized data centers as pools of computing managed by cloud providers and reachable from any location on the global internet — courtesy of networking. After the initial data center build-out, provisioning services don’t involve physical or mechanical labor.
Virtual networking services that ride on top of existing physical networks can be managed similarly, but there are network offerings that will involve the deployment of physical assets. In locations without existing connectivity, providers will have to install network hardware and sometimes even trench and lay down fiber or bring up wireless towers in rural locations. Wireless access points and switches must be shipped and turned on for campus networks, even if zero-touch cloud-based software is utilized. There is, therefore, friction in any NaaS offering that involves bringing up a new network at a new location.
Why NaaS and Why Now?
Regardless of which flavor of NaaS we’re discussing, enterprises strongly desire a simpler way to purchase networking. Enterprises are fed up with the complexity and perceived nickel-and-diming from vendors. They don’t want to deal with hardware purchases separate from software, maintenance, and support, plus hardware and software upgrades.
Cross-pollination from SaaS, IaaS, PaaS
SaaS was embraced by companies tired of installing, upgrading, configuring, maintaining, and patching software. IaaS was embraced by development teams sick of procuring servers, racking and stacking them in data centers, keeping them powered and cooled, maintaining the underlying software and virtualization infrastructure, and managing and scheduling access.
Likewise, CIOs, IT directors, and managers are looking for an alternative to the complexity of procuring, provisioning, managing, and maintaining networks — LANs, WANs, inter-data centers, and multi-cloud. Seeing the success of other utility and consumption-based models, they want it to apply to networking. They want an all-in-one package that promises business outcomes and service-level agreements without further headaches.
Evolution of Business Preferences
In addition, we’re hearing from businesses about their preferences for OpEx over CapEx, for a scale-as-you-grow model, and for outcome-based solutions. NaaS happens to align with these preferences. NaaS supports business needs to focus on core competencies and outsource unnecessary tasks.
Improvements in Automation Technology
From the supply side, networking vendors have made sufficient progress in their programmable capabilities (since the early days of SDN) and advanced automation. Likewise, new software networking OS stacks are being developed from scratch that eschew command line interfaces and instead take an API and model-centric management approach that lends itself to automation at scale.
Data analytics and AI/ML are also advancing, allowing network providers and service providers to cost-effectively bring advanced and autonomous managed networking to the market.
There’s No One True NaaS — And That’s Just Fine
Let’s view NaaS through the lens of SaaS and accept that it encapsulates a core business and delivery model but encompasses a diversity of network offerings. In that case, there’s no need for a single definition of NaaS. There can be healthy discussions around the interoperability of different flavors of NaaS, agreement on how to provision end-to-end dynamic networks that are cross-providers, and northbound APIs to enable the various NaaS services.
For those looking for more in-depth knowledge and for more discussions, the MEF will be hosting their inaugural Global NaaS Event (GNE) from October 2nd to 4th in Dallas, TX. If you’re interested in NaaS, this event could offer valuable insights into its evolving landscape. Please go check it out!
(Photo credit: Jan Huber on Unsplash)