Managed network vs. managed router

Issue August 2011

Today's typical law firm network has been built piecemeal over several years, resulting in a lack of an overarching architecture plan. This makes it extremely difficult and time consuming to manage.

As law firms in Massachusetts look to move more of their applications to the cloud, they're finding that their networks simply aren't prepared to handle the increase in network traffic. And not just in terms of bandwidth, but also in their ability to prioritize the heavier volume and different types of traffic.

So how did it come to this? One reason is firms' reliance on traditional telecom carriers and their service delivery. Often, carriers will make the initial sale by promising law firms a managed router -- where the carriers control and remotely make adjustments to the router as they see fit.

But in today's world of MPLS (multiprotocol label switching) networks, designed to transport both voice and data with variable Quality of Service (QoS), just having the router being managed isn't enough. Law firms not only give up a lot of control, but they also lose the ability to customize their networks to fit their needs. That's why, in order to ensure top performance of enterprise voice, video, data and cloud applications, firms need a managed network.

Managed network, managed router … what's the difference?

Today, carriers simply provide a network service, and very little else. For instance, they do not provide the proactive monitoring and support services -- including security monitoring -- that many enterprises seek today for their networks. Carriers will mostly wait until circuits are down to start any measures to remedy service issues -- meaning law firms run the risk of losing significant network availability while circuits are being repaired.

In addition, carriers only provide a router with inflexible single IOS (Internetwork Operating System) standards that allow little custom configuration -- something that is crucial for keeping up with the dynamic evolution of today's cloud-based business applications. And since much of the equipment is on-premise, the firm is responsible for the cost of hardware upgrades and replacements.

On the other hand, with a cloud-based managed network approach, law firms can prioritize and manage the performance of critical business applications from the router. This can enhance a firm's efficiency, execution and agility by allowing it to be much more involved in the overall network strategy -- including how to design, manage and monitor the network, as opposed to just focusing on pushing packets through the pipe.

Let's look at some of the top benefits that a cloud-based managed network approach provides to customers today:

Fully customizable QoS. With the emergence of MPLS, law firms can now easily incorporate voice, video and data onto a converged network. This makes it more important than ever to prioritize the QoS for each application to meet their specific business needs. This way, last night's ESPN highlights aren't interrupting voice traffic or access, for example.

Personalized customer approach from certified engineers. Law firms are relying on cloud-based managed service providers today because they have the certified network design engineers answering their calls that can minimize the technical, implementation and investment risks -- risks that they would face if they tried to design the network themselves, or if they tried to get a carrier to adapt their services to the company's network design. This managed service approach also includes constant proactive monitoring, so problems are often identified and fixed before companies even know they happened, rather than enduring multiple calls and playing the escalation game that carriers can put customers through.

Remote router monitoring and activity logging (TACACS). Just because a managed network is fully managed by the service provider doesn't mean a law firm has to give up control over its routers. Under a managed network framework, firms can feel free to make any changes they feel are necessary without fear. The service provider's Terminal Access Controller Access-Control System (TACACS) keeps logs of any router activity and they can easily revert routers back to a previous setting in case a mistake is made.

A cohesive network approach. A managed network provider will leverage the power of multiple Tier 1 providers under one cohesive network, but to the customer it functions as one network, significantly reducing the time and cost of managing multiple vendors. In addition, to address business continuity concerns, multiple networks are used with multiple failover options, providing greater redundancy and survivability. A cohesive network approach enables a managed network service provider to leverage the power of the underlying infrastructures to ensure the best delivery of service to the customer.

Automatic QoS tagging. Managed network providers first consult with the customer on how its data needs to be tagged and which applications need to be prioritized - all based on business needs. In most cases, law firms are running applications over their networks that aren't prioritized or tagged at all. By setting up an automatic QoS configuration based on business rules, firms take the guesswork out of prioritizing traffic.

A managed network provider will also tag global domestic Internet and general Internet traffic differently as it comes into the network. Rules can also be set up on routers and switches that only allow certain types of traffic to flow through those devices. For instance, international traffic most likely doesn't need to be on the routers, so it can be blocked, providing a huge security benefit against unwanted intrusions from spammers and malware originating from sources overseas.

Multiple direct peering. A managed network provider uses multiple direct peering arrangements to identify the optimal Internet connection available across all of its Tier 1 providers at that time. They can also provide QoS through an MPLS network directly into cloud-based apps such as and NetSuite via private peering connections for better performance.

Network monitoring and support.
The protection provided through network monitoring and support services is crucial in today's legal world. Managed network providers give law firms unprecedented visibility into their network all the way to the application level, where they benefit from historic trending analysis relative to network performance through enterprise-class monitoring tools. In addition, application QoS tagging is shown on the network layer to confirm that traffic is being properly marked, prioritized and delivered across the network for the highest performance levels.

The continued emergence of a cloud-based approach to doing business can provide significant benefits, but it also creates significant challenges for law firms today. Firms looking to gain an edge in a competitive landscape are finding they can get rid of ad hoc, carrier-based networks and routers, and instead turn to a cloud-based, fully managed network that will save them time and money, and result in better overall performance.

James Whitemore is executive vice president of Smoothstone IP Communications, a provider of cloud-based communications for enterprise-level companies.