Digital transformation is a given after COVID-19. What is not is network bandwidth, and it can often derail a chief digital officer’s best efforts and intentions.
One company that is looking to tackle this head-on is digital services provider SPTel.
The joint venture between ST Engineering and Singapore Power started life as a business-class network provider for government organizations and enterprises looking for a smarter network.
“And for that, we actually designed a new network catering for the government and enterprises,” said Heng Kwee Tong, vice president of engineering and customer solutions at SPTel.
Rethinking network design
SPTel focused on making the network as intelligent as possible. They had to, as they were focused on a single aim: becoming an enabler of the Singapore Government’s Smart Nation Initiative.
“The whole network incorporated software-defined network (SDN) along with the latest network function virtualization (NFV). We were looking at how enterprises will use our network platform together with their IoT platform as a service solution,” said Heng.
COVID-19 brought SPTel's inherent benefits for digitalization and IoT to the forefront.
Companies started to rush their digital initiatives and use cloud-based services to drive remote working productivity. Virtual private networking became a key connectivity option for accessing mission-critical applications and data.
All these efforts put a toll on bandwidth availability, as many employees used their home networks to access corporate apps and data. With customer experience and responsiveness becoming critical, many were looking for help.
Heng noted that those companies who were able to quickly adapt during the first months of COVID-19 to a cloud-first environment were those who were already cloud-driven.
“They are better off when it comes to handling the data. Those enterprises that were still doing [work] on-premises or using hybrid cloud were left looking to increase bandwidth and searching for VPN solutions. And that’s where we also got very busy in the early months of February and March,” said Heng.
Companies were having difficulty in taming the wild bandwidth fluctuations. Heng noted that scaling cloud storage may be easy, but scaling bandwidth is a contractual dilemma.
The practice of locking companies into rigid contracts meant they had two choices: predict bandwidth usage increase or intelligently guess the peak bandwidth requirements. Both lead to overprovisioning and bloated network spend.
Built-in SDN features allowed SPTel to provide another alternative that took out the guesswork at a time when enterprises became sensitive to increases in spending. They were able to offer bandwidth on demand.
“We had the technology to help [enterprises] to monitor their utilization in real-time and pay on demand based on utilization and scale when needed,” said Heng.
The resilience angle
Another area that soon became a shared chief digital officer and a chief technology officer remit is network resilience.
Heng noted that many companies took a hard look at their need for resilience after COVID-19. “Prior to that, some may not know that there are options for network diversity.”
SPTel’s unique fiber heritage and Smart Nation Initiative roots helped. Owning its own fiber helped SPTel to build diverse network paths. “Because you cannot afford any downtime for your critical internet infrastructure, we also ensured that our fiber passes through our own secure hubs to minimize any tampering,” said Heng.
This level of resilience was already part of the design as SPTel was preparing for IoT-based networking, which was to be the foundation for Singapore’s Smart Nation Initiative.
The idea is to use sensors to better manage and improve governance, right down to policymaking. With IoT device types numerous, use cases varied, and standardization still evolving, SPTel built a two-tier ultra-low latency network that was both protocol-agnostic. Since all Smart Nation Initiative projects can be mission-critical, the network needs to handle outages quickly.
SPTel approached resilience by using fiber pathways separated from other providers with dual exchanges as a standard for all connected buildings. “Whichever building we connected with, we ensured we had exchange diversity,” Heng added, highlighting the auto-failover of network traffic if there is a disruption.
He noted that having an alternative fiber network that is physically separate from infrastructure shared by other providers minimized the risk of operational downtime from disruptions. It also ensures the network stays up and running smoothly at all times.
SPTel reduced the number of network hops by using a two-tier architecture. This results in “an ultra-low latency network, with less than 1-millisecond island-wide latency. This is especially crucial for applications that need to function near real-time,” said Heng.
The future is about latency
AI is often seen as the future of any industry.
But for SPTel, AI is already part of their network promise. Heng noted that as part of SDN, it allows the company to optimize the network paths and quickly handle additional network loads.
“So, [our network] is pretty much self-healing,” said Heng.
At the crux of AI’s promise is the ability to handle another issue that will become crucial for smart city success: latency. And this is where the future battle will be fought over by companies like SPTel.
Ultra-low latency will be a necessity for smart city projects, like the Smart Nation Initiative. It will involve millions of sensors with a multitude of protocols congesting current networks. With 5G-based networks coming online, a network re-design is needed.
SPTel is already there with edge network designs.
“Yes, IoT is going to bring on board a data influx. We are very big on multi-access edge computing, and with strategic hubs located all across the island, we are able to do edge computing. We will bring multi-access edge computing nodes closer to the companies,” said Heng.
Such an approach allows the network to offload some of the computing required for IoT data analytics at the edge, “which is managed in a secure hub,” said Heng. It also reduces bandwidth requirements for the cloud as less data needs to be shuttled back and forth with the central data center.
By automating all of this, with built-in cybersecurity measures, SPTel is building a new enterprise-grade network across Singapore that it hopes to stand it apart — as it already did during COVID-19.
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