Westpac brings its branch network closer to cloud

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Westpac brings its branch network closer to cloud

Exclusive: All traffic no longer routed through Sydney.

Westpac is one-third of the way through a major network upgrade supporting its 950 bank branches Australia-wide, bringing them NBN fibre, wi-fi 6, and a shorter route to the cloud.

The ‘big four’ bank is in the process of deploying a Cisco software-defined WAN or SD-WAN across its physical bank branches, which it claims “is the first of its kind by an Australian bank”.

Earlier this year, the bank had struck a deal with NBN Co to have fibre infrastructure deployed to all branches.

While bandwidth into the sites will improve, so will Westpac’s ability to manage how the branches connect into enterprise and externally-hosted systems, with sizable performance improvements already being seen.

This will largely come courtesy of a Cisco SD-WAN the bank started scoping around 18 months ago, and kicked off in October 2019.

Westpac piloted the SD-WAN at an undisclosed number of branches during Q1 this year before moving into a production deployment. 

The technology is live at 300 branches in NSW, ACT, Victoria and Queensland; it has about 950 branches nationwide, with around 50 branches a week being transformed, Westpac’s head of secure network services Wayne Bonett told iTnews.

At that rate, all branches will be on the SD-WAN by the end of 2020.

Bonett said the pilot was used specifically to “prove out” Westpac’s SD-WAN design, which effectively shadows the reach of cloud services the bank uses like Office 365.

“We've actually set up the Westpac WAN to mirror cloud backbones across the country,” Bonett said.

“Say you've got a branch in Victoria. Previously for connectivity to services like Office 365, that branch would hairpin all the way up to Sydney and then out to cloud services. 

“What we've done is we've set up regional hubs in each state, so now a branch in Victoria would connect directly into the hub in Melbourne, and then go out to consume Office 365 services that are local.”

Bonett said the state-based hubs are in the same local data centres that Westpac’s cloud providers - such as Microsoft and AWS - use.

“We've set up these regional hubs in the states ... in the same co-lo facilities that the cloud services are in as well,” he said.

“[This] means it's a simple cross-connect ... to enable connectivity into those different clouds.”

Bonett said that the combination of NBN fibre and Cisco SD-WAN and associated infrastructure meant branches would have “10 times the bandwidth that we previously had at half the cost that we were previously paying.” 

As a result, he said, branches could expect sizable performance improvements from existing cloud services they consume.

“For applications like Microsoft Teams we've seen performance improvements in the vicinity of 80 percent, just based on the mere fact that they're no longer taking the long haul back to Sydney to connect,” Bonett said.

But the upgrades also made increased consumption of cloud, or of bandwidth-hungry applications, possible.

“It just becomes much more within reach to be consuming those services,” Bonett said. 

“The network is no longer a barrier to that consumption.

“If the business has something new that they want to consume, then we want them to be in a position where they can consume it without having to worry about high latency or having enough bandwidth to enable that consumption.”

Zero touch deployment

One reason the bank is able to continue to deploy the new branch infrastructure at pace is the “zero touch provisioning” model it is using for the deployment.

“During the deployment, we have a local provider go to the branch with the equipment - new switching, new [edge] router and new wi-fi,” Bonett said.

“They plug it in and then it’s zero touch provisioning. We configure the devices remotely and automatically deploy [those configurations] to them over the internet.

“That's been quite an advantage at the moment, considering restrictions on travel between states. We've been able to leverage local resources and not have to slow down deployment at all, which is why we're hitting the cadence that we're hitting.”

Wi-fi 6 in branches

In addition to the SD-WAN, branches are being kitted out with Cisco wi-fi 6 capable access points, enabling much faster connectivity speeds in-branch.

Customers were seeing the improvements as they used free Westpac wi-fi in-branch; Bonett said the network is often used by customers to download and then set up Westpac’s mobile app while onsite.

“Often customers come in and they leverage our free wi-fi to download the mobile app,” he said.

“We're seeing a significant increase in performance of free wi-fi”, equivalent to a five-fold improvement in “mobile banking application downloads for customers,” the bank said in a statement.

NBN fibre rollout

Westpac is one of a number of large Australian organisations to strike a deal with NBN Co to have fibre infrastructure deployed across all its branch sites. Woolworths, for example, has a similar commercial deal.

The bank said the exact terms of its agreement with NBN Co are commercially sensitive.

In general, NBN Co agrees to deploy fibre as long as big enterprise customers agree to certain conditions, such as a minimum length of contract and/or spend.

Bonett said that Westpac would have NBN fibre into every single branch, and also run multiple carrier connections into a single NBN network termination device (NTD). 

An NBN NTD is capable of supporting up to four different connections to the NBN.

Westpac is using a mix of Telstra, Optus, Aussie Broadband and TPG.

[“We’re using] multiple carriers for resiliency, performance and scalability,” Bonett said.

“There’s multiple carriers [into each branch] with a 4G backup, so we've got transport redundancy, as well as carrier resiliency.”

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