Comcast's decision to throw its hat into the medium-size business sector is paying off in spades, and its metro Ethernet service is at the heart of that success.

In its third-quarter earnings report earlier this month, Comcast CEO Brian Roberts said that business services revenues, which increased 39 percent to $454 million, were "becoming a significant driver of our growth." Comcast officially announced its entry into the mid-size metro Ethernet business in May across 20 markets, but during the earnings call, the company announced it was now available in all of its markets.

Kevin O'TooleKevin O'Toole, senior vice president of product management and strategy for Comcast Business Services, said Comcast began prepping for its foray into the medium-size business sector a few years ago by doing some "quiet" metro Ethernet trials, as well as by working with large carriers on cellular backhaul.

"The cell backhaul effort was really a great opportunity because we were able to get this network out there and start serving some of the most demanding customers in the country," O'Toole said. "If you can serve another carrier using the same technology and the same operations, you've really battle-tested your capabilities."

With its metro Ethernet offerings, Comcast can deliver bandwidth from 1 Mbps up to 10 Gbps that can be remotely scaled in increments of 1 Mbps, 10 Mbps, 100 Mbps or 1 Gbps, and it's offered with three different classes of service.

By using Ethernet-based technologies, business customers can scale their bandwidth requirements for cloud computing, business continuity, business process automation, software-as-a-service (SaaS) and other applications.

The benefits of metro Ethernet
Flexibility, ease of use, low cost and a future-proofed network were a few of the factors that led to Township High School District 214, which serves 12,500 high school students in a Chicago suburb, to pick Comcast Business Services' metro Ethernet offering.

Keith Bockwoldt, director of technology services for District 214, said the district was using Comcast's ATM service but was required to solicit bids from competitors in order to qualify for federal funding.

"Comcast had the best pricing and most robust offer for the district, so we selected them, and it's been a very solid network for us," Bockwoldt said. "I can count on one hand the times we've been down, and those times it went down was because of a backhoe or something that dug into the fiber."

Bockwoldt's district comprises seven campuses, each with buildings that are between 350,000 and 400 square feet. The district also supports more than 6,200 computers, 1,300 VoIP phones, 850 tablets, 225 IP cameras and 400 wireless access points.

"Right now, I have 200 megabits to each one of our campuses and a total of 145 megabits to the Internet, which is kind of a lot," Bockwoldt said. "I don't know if you hear of many school districts that have that kind of capacity. Because of all of the Web 2.0 and all of the cloud computing, we're really looking at getting rid of all of the applications that reside on a desktop that are client-server based and moving to more of the host-based services out on the Internet."

Using Comcast's metro Ethernet, the school district connects to IlliniCloud, which is a public cloud, for 24/7 access and storage of its critical data.

Virtualization reaps rewards
Three years ago, the school district embarked on a virtualization project after it had reached 94 percent capacity in its new data center. By moving to virtualization, the school district saved on servers in the data centers.

"The efficiencies of virtualization come in two dimensions," O'Toole said. "One is simply cost avoidance. Rather than having to build and maintain servers at all of the locations, when you move into a virtualized environment, you get some economies of scale. With those economies of scale comes the ability to be industrial strength. I can go into one or two data centers that are air conditioned properly, have proper power and redundancy, and I can invest my dollars in one or two spots to make sure they're more hardened around the edge of the network.

"The other dimension is because I'm getting efficiencies in terms of how I'm managing that technology, it's not costing me as much to manage it, I can then bring new applications in. I can reinvest those same dollars in doing more. The beauty of virtualization is that you get a higher quality on the stuff you're doing, and you save money that lets you do even more at a higher quality of service."

O'Toole said Comcast's metro Ethernet provides the bandwidth necessary to make virtualization possible, as well as a dedicated network operations center (NOC) team that can monitor and fix problems on the fly.

Bockwoldt said the school district was working on a hybrid cloud that will also be provisioned over the last mile by Comcast's metro Ethernet services. The hybrid cloud would still connect with the IlliniCloud on one end, but also with "feeder" school districts in the area.

"When you look at what the cloud does, when you move all of your applications into the cloud, you really double down on your last mile network connection," O'Toole said. "Now everything you do is going over that network, so you really have to make sure you have the right technology, that it's scalable, that it's reliable, that it provides the amount of bandwidth you need, as well as the bandwidth quality and controls that you need.

"So we think metro Ethernet is a fantastic solution for customers who are adopting cloud services."

By using metro Ethernet, Bockwoldt was able to segment his traffic across the wide area network (WAN). Currently, VoIP has the top priority, followed by video and then data. Going forward, the school district is looking at offering a more robust video conferencing service, which could cause Bockwoldt to realign his priorities, but he won't have to alter the network that's in place.

"We have 200 megs to each one of the campuses, and I'm looking to ratchet that up," he said. "All I'll have to do is make a phone call, and we can ratchet that up. It's not like I have to re-engineer the network again and run new lines. It's already there. The plumbing is in place. I just need to open the faucet up a little a bit more."

O'Toole said metro Ethernet services, including point-to-point, point-to-multipoint and point-to-Internet, are flexible enough to serve companies with only three or four sites, while also being scalable enough to serve up to 50 sites, as well as handling the cell backhaul duties.

"The beauty of the technology is that it's so flexible in meeting the needs, and aligning costs, with the needs of a business at a given location," O'Toole said. "Regardless of the speeds or configurations that they need, it's basically one piece of CPE that we can put on each customer location. We use a device from Ciena that will go up to a gigabit per second. So even if they start at 10 megs, we don't have to change that CPE until we're north of a gig. We have a lot of runway in it for them."

Over the past year, Comcast hired 600 new employees to help keep pace with its business services growth. For now, Comcast is staying keenly focused on the small- and medium-size business services sectors.

"We look at the opportunity that we're pursuing today with small business, under 20 employees, and the mid-market, which we define 20 to 500 employees, and we think that's just such a great opportunity that we're not really looking at enterprise right now," O'Toole said. "We're always looking at new stuff, but we're very focused on getting out there and getting going on solving problems like we did for the school district."