Overhauling the network: End the finger-pointing

When a new chief technology officer joins a company, they usually want to be involved in the big decisions.

But when Adrian Byram joined Radiant Communications at the beginning of the year as executive vice-president and CTO, the Vancouver-based broadband supplier had already largely decided to replace its largely Cisco Systems-based infrastructure with gear from a single supplier, Juniper Networks. It’s the sort of move a senior executive might have wanted to be in on from the beginning.

However, in this case Byram was content to go along with the call because he’d already overseen a Juniper implementation at the California service provider he’d recently left. Familiarity with the brand in doing this kind of work would help, he felt.

Aside from the feature advantages the newer Juniper gear offered, choosing one supplier has a key advantage, he said: “It solves the problem of finger-pointing.” While many companies make carrier-grade equipment Radiant needs, including Cisco, Juniper and Redback Networks, they don’t always work well together, he said.

With one supplier, if there’s a complaint, “they can’t escape,” Byram chuckled. “You can hold their feet to the fire. If you’ve got a mixed environment there’s always room for someone to wiggle out.”

Founded 10 years ago, Radiant started as a traditional ISP for home users and then switched to serving organizations. Although it’s publicly-traded on the Toronto Venture Exchange, its largest and controlling shareholders are two venture capital companies who helped fund its growth in the early years.

With offices in Calgary, Edmonton, Toronto and Montreal, it offers broadband, private networking, hosted Exchange and VoIP services to small and mid-size companies across the country. Online payment processing services have helped it capture multi-branch customers such as Wal-Mart, London Drugs and 7-Eleven.

Recapitalizing the company in 2005 and installing a new CEO last year helped Radiant pull in just over $19 million in revenue in 2006 and score its first profitable year. In addition to its 5,000-square-foot data centre in Vancouver, Radiant leases a modest 200 square feet of space in Toronto.

Until the beginning of the year, the core of its network was built around Cisco 7206 Services Aggregation routers, which had served the company well. “But it couldn’t’ do all the things we wanted to do,” Byram explained, such as the ability to offer Multiprotocol Label Switching (MPLS)-based services and SSL VPN solutions. Doing MPLS over the Cisco router wasn’t practical, he said. In addition, Radiant staff felt Juniper’s ASIC-driven hardware offered more flexibility than Cisco’s CPU-powered equipment.

“This technology moves quite rapidly,” he said. “If you don’t refresh your network infrastructure every four to five years, you’re going to find yourself uncompetitive.” Another factor was the fact that Radiant suppliers Bell Canada and Telus have standardized on Juniper’s E-series for their DSL aggregation equipment, “so we’re all on the same page.”

The new core, at a cost of “well over $1 million,” is built around Juniper’s M10i edge router and an ERX-1440 broadband service router, which merges the lines from carrier providers. An ISG 2000 gateway serves as a shared firewall for MPLS customers, while an SA 6000 VPN appliance handles the SSL functions. This package is fully redundant, running in a clustered environment. (“There’s a bunch of Cisco stuff in there,” he added. “You can’t avoid it.”)

“The key is to create a private network for customers between their various stores or branches and head office, and the opportunity to go onto the Internet when they need to.” The replacement process began early in the year, with all customers expected to be on the new system by January.

One reason it’s taking so long is that the work can only be done Sundays in the small hours, when the network is normally down for maintenance. It was largely problem-free, but while Cisco’s IOS and Juniper’s JUNOS operating systems are fundamentally similar, there are differences in what Byram called syntax, leading to times when “we thought it would work in a certain way, and then, ‘Whoops.’”

Apparently there weren’t many “whoops” moments, in part because a Juniper technician reviewed the design.

Among the new services Radiant now can offer is what it calls a TriplePlay VPN, which combines SSL and IPSec through MPLS.

“The customers we target don’t have big IT staff to manage these technologies the way a large corporation might enjoy,” Bryam said. “We can automate the provisioning of an MPLS private network, whereas if you’re doing it through IPSec you have to handcraft those tunnels, and that makes it not very scalable.

“We are offering the MPLS solution at a lower price point than our IPSec solution, so we’re able to go out there and save our customers money.”

And that’s a decision he’s glad to be part of.

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