LiveAction Provides View Into Cisco ISR/ASR SD-WANs

Cisco's edge routers may be the most widely deployed business technology products out there. Over the past several decades, Cisco has dominated branch routing, with more than 80% market share, and the Integrated Services Router (ISR) and Aggregation Services Router (ASR) portfolios are a big part of that installed base. However, over the past few years, software-defined WANs (SD-WANs) have threatened to disrupt Cisco's stranglehold with their alternate way of architecting a WAN.


To speed its SD-WAN entry, Cisco acquired Viptela in August 2017, but this left its customers with a bit of a conundrum: either move to a Viptela-based SD-WAN and replace their routers, or keep the ISR/ASRs and postpone the shift to SD-WAN. While the SD-WAN industry has been aggressively campaigning to convince enterprises to replace their ISR/ASRs, the fact is that customers like the products because they deliver a converged branch infrastructure. They can run Cisco Call Manager Express, UCS Express, Security Services, and much more on these routers, gaining a true "all in one" edge platform.

Cisco recently announced the addition of SD-WAN capabilities across the ISR/ASR families, as well as the Enterprise Network Compute System (ENCS) 5412, via the integration of the Viptela stack into the newest version of its IOS XE operating system software. This creates a "best of both worlds" scenario that lets businesses keep their routers while getting an instant migration path to a cloud SD-WAN deployment. Now companies with this massive installed base of more than one million ISRs/ASRs, according to Cisco, has a fast path to Viptela SD-WAN and a path to intent-based networking, while being able to leverage existing infrastructure. Also, the network operations team can use the zero-touch provisioning capabilities to turn up new sites quickly.

That said, network professionals must understand that SD-WAN success doesn't just happen by flipping a switch and assuming everything will work. Viptela certainly has a number of features that make things work better, but things can still go wrong. To help combat SD-WAN problems, network professionals can turn to a company like LiveAction, which has a number of visibility features aimed at ensuring the ISR/ASR-based SD-WAN is meeting business objectives.

LiveAction's LiveNX platform goes beyond what Cisco provides in its vManage SD-WAN element manager by providing multidomain, multivendor visibility features. The LiveNX platform collects and analyzes network data in real time, and with capabilities gained in the June acquisition of Savvius (previously Wild Packets), it also integrates deep packet analysis. LiveNX pulls information directly from the network devices and collects a wide range of multiple datasets, including flow (NetFlow, jFlow, etc.), SNMP, packet data, and APIs from controllers and cloud service management systems.

LiveAction, which is a longtime Cisco partner, adds value in the following ways:

Reduced Risk Migrating from Cisco's Intelligent WAN SD-WAN Offering -- Beyond a simple hub-and-spoke design, many ISR/ASR remote branches leveraged the IWAN solution architecture with performance routing and path selection capabilities. Introducing cloud-enabled SD-WAN to the installed routers means changing the control plane, policies, and quality-of-service classes. IWAN customers already using LiveNX can continue to leverage it for visibility and performance monitoring of new Cisco SD-WAN expansions.

Faster Troubleshooting -- One of SD-WAN's primary value propositions is the opportunity to reduce transport costs by using Internet broadband services. However, this can't be at the expense of application performance and reliability. SD-WANs require the use of centralized controllers and overlay networks and tunnels for application optimization, with more selective service-level agreement (SLA) classes and other changes that can make a larger deployment more complicated and harder to find root causes.

LiveAction's ability to monitor and continually assess end-to-end application performance eases the task of finding trouble spots and isolating issues. This translates directly into fewer trouble tickets, better application performance, and improved end-user experience by minimizing the amount of jitter or packet loss on voice and video calls. Some network professionals I've talked to are still skeptical about running voice and video on SD-WAN, but I think they can overcome such concerns with the right management tools.

Improved Network Planning -- When designing a network or planning a migration or expansion, I like to refer to the axiom "measure twice, cut once" -- meaning, the earlier a problem is identified, the easier it is to fix. With SD-WANs, planning is everything. Do the proper upfront work and the migration will be simple. Do it ad hoc, and pay the price of having to fix a network with live users on it. LiveAction breaks network planning into the following three phases:

  • Day 0 -- Baseline planning. This is all about knowing what you don't know. It involves discovering all network devices and functions, their locations, business applications in use, and their performance baselines. You'd think most businesses know this, but in my experience, fewer than 5% of companies do. LiveNX has automation capabilities that discover devices and traffic flows to make this a straightforward task.
  • Day 1 -- Deployment and verification. The challenge in this phase is understanding the performance of all the components. For example, with Cisco's ISR/ASR-based SD-WAN, the cEdge (vEdge on ISR/ASR) software runs virtually on the routers. Engineers need to understand the state of the policies for path quality, SLA class assignments of specific applications, SLA KPIs for service provider transport, and utilization of resources site to site and down to each device, interface, and application. In addition, network professionals supporting hybrid environments should know which applications are using MPLS and which are using broadband, as performance can vary widely depending on which is used. LiveNX continually validates policies to ensure apps are performing as expected; it sees the paths applications take, alerts on configuration issues, and spots QoS anomalies.
  • Day 2 -- Ongoing operations. Once the SD-WAN is up and running, the IT team needs to have holistic visibility to understand how the network changes as the application environment evolves. LiveNX continually looks at bandwidth utilization, so if things move off the baseline, IT can take preventative action. For example, consider the case in which the mean opinion score (MOS) for voice calling dropped from 4.5 at deployment to 4.3 over three consecutive quarters, and then to 4.1. While users aren't likely to report trouble at this point, IT could project they will once MOS drops under 4.0. Rather than wait till then, network operations can proactively add bandwidth and head off quality issues.

Consolidation of Network Tools -- Tool sprawl has become a huge problem for network professionals. Legacy management tools from the likes of Computer Associates and BMC were never designed for the type of highly dynamic environments that are in place today. This has given rise to an explosion of startups that solve one piece of the puzzle. Recent data from analyst firm EMA shows that more than one quarter of companies have more than 11 tools deployed.

LiveAction's strength has always been monitoring flows, but it couldn't see things to the granular level of a packet-based tool. Earlier this year, through its acquisition of Savvius, which excelled in packet-based management, LiveAction brought the two together. Now, companies can use flows for a high-level look at the network and drill down into the packet information when necessary. It's unlikely LiveAction will be the only tool companies use but its single dashboard will help consolidate tools and slow down tool sprawl.

SD-WANs might be the hottest network topic today -- and with the Viptela technology now integrated into the ISR/ASRs, we're likely to see a spike in migrations. But customers that choose this path shouldn't forget the importance of management and planning. LiveAction's LiveNX can help Cisco customers transition to SD-WANs without incurring the risk of poor application performance.