As a long-time strategic supplier to Honda, NTT Communications Corp. was in a strong position to respond when the automaker decided the time had come to make its massive supplier network of 10,000 suppliers in 54 countries operate more efficiently.
However, the challenge was significant because of the diversity of suppliers and their locations, the huge size of the many of the computer-aided design (CAD) files Honda shares with its suppliers, and the need for rock-solid security of all the file contents, both in transit and when stored.
And while the process -- starting with a thorough assessment -- was time-consuming, it produced results that pleased Honda management: a 14X increase in file-sharing speed and a reduction in operating costs by 30% on an annual basis. Those results are prompting Honda to look at where else it can use NTT Communications Corp. (NYSE: NTT)'s Enterprise Cloud Infrastructure, according to the company. (See NTT Reaping Opex Rewards of SDN.)
"We worked with them as a trusted adviser or consultant because we know their business; we know where some of their pain points are," says Chris Davis, director of marketing for NTT in the Americas. "In this case we are working with the department that handles a lot of the supplier and vendor relationships and our teams were able to propose different solutions to try to help."
At the point where NTT got involved, the diversity of network connections among the broad base of suppliers had prompted Honda to resort to almost rustic ways of sharing its enormous CAD files with some suppliers: It was actually putting the files on hard drives and sending them via overnight mail to vendors and suppliers. That approach was secure but inefficient and costly.
What NTT's Enterprise Cloud was able to bring to Honda's supplier network was a single unified access layer, connecting NTT's 11 global cloud data centers, that is built on software-defined networking (SDN). NTT uses OpenFlow, the open standard switch communications protocol, along with programmable Ethernet switches, to virtualize the network access layer routing protocols and enable dynamic provisioning of network resources. Bandwidth can be turned up from a central console when needed to carry large CAD files, then turned down when no longer in use, saving substantially on bandwidth consumption.
So instead of a supplier in Singapore having to connect to Honda's proprietary data center back in Japan via a private link, for instance, the supplier can use a secure socket layer (SSL) connection via its existing Internet access for the local connection into the NTT Enterprise Cloud network, Davis explains. This was a critical point, given the diversity of suppliers and supplier locations.
"The suppliers are using their regular high-speed Internet connections, which can be higher speed and lower cost than expensive point-to-point connections," he explains. "In the background, it's the SDN-based network within the Enterprise Cloud that connects all of our cloud delivery centers, leveraging our global IP network. The suppliers are able to move large CAD files long distances in milliseconds because that is what our network is intended to do."
Security still an issue
The files themselves are encrypted, both in transit and in storage, using Camellia file encryption as a standard approach -- that is also made possible by the move to NTT's Enterprise Cloud. Camellia was developed by NTT and Mitsubishi and has global recognition as a strong encryption technology.
One additional benefit for Honda is that it is much easier and faster to turn up new suppliers -- often 30% faster, Davis says -- and to train them on the processes involved in the supplier network. There is standard hardware that suppliers can deploy and standard training as well. Honda can also easily turn up new capacity to its network -- or reduce what's there -- via a portal provided by NTT which manages the orchestration layer across the network.
NTT deployed the SDN-based network connecting its global data centers as part of its cloud services strategy back in 2012, and has become adept at using the network's dynamic capabilities for its enterprise customers. The Japanese telecom giant has now added network functions virtualization (NFV), for virtualized functions such as firewalls and more.
But the sheer volume of the Honda supplier chain deal made it a unique challenge, Davis admits.
"It took a long time to do this implementation -- the assessment had to be done first and it also took some time to determine what has to be done before they migrated from their previous solution to the cloud," he says. "We had to look carefully at what's moving and how it is going to be stored."
Given that NTT is known for having internally built pieces of its SDN deployment because what it needed wasn't commercially available, it isn't surprising to hear that the network operator also internally developed tools to help in the assessment process because, again, it didn't find what it needed in the commercial arena, Davis says.
"The difficult part was maintaining communications with suppliers during the migration process, which took months," he says.
NTT sees major momentum gathering behind this kind of effort, however. Davis believes most large companies have recognized they need to get their apps and their data out of their corporate data centers and into globally connected data centers, and that it helps to have diverse network connections.
"We have customers adopting this and not just on a small scale," he says. "There are big global companies -- like Honda -- embracing virtualization."
— Carol Wilson, Editor-at-Large, Light Reading