Microbranch is simply extending a network out to all those places where workers connect - like a home office, an event space or a retail popup - and ensuring these remote networking experiences are equivalent to being in-office. With these remote locations now becoming so prevalent, Aruba - a global leader in wired, wireless, and SD-WAN solutions - set out to develop a solution that would provide better wireless connectivity and security outside of the conventional four-walled workspaces.

Now Microbranch isn’t a single product, rather it’s a combination of Aruba’s secure edge portfolio that spans campus, branch, WAN, and remote workers with a single SD-WAN fabric to deliver business-grade network capabilities to anywhere.

Essentially, a microbranch uses Aruba Remote Access Points and the cloud-based Aruba Central management console to support remote management and device onboarding with configuration using software-defined WAN (SD-WAN) services for traffic management and security. It is positioned as a quick, fuss-free way to securely extend corporate network services to remote locations with minimal infrastructure. It’s worthwhile mentioning at this point that you can also use more affordable NBN links for network access, rather than business-grade communication services.

It all sounds very neat and tidy but how advantageous is it for Australian organisations over existing approaches?

Microbranch versus VPN

Aruba is pitching it as the ideal solution to meet the rise in remote or hybrid-first work models and as a better alternative to VPNs - which is how most organisations currently connect remote employees. For the latter, IT install a VPN client on work laptops, allowing staff to use the device when working from home or the coffee shop, beach etc.

While the microbranch approach seems like a great idea, the reality is that to cover their remote working staff, IT must deploy potentially hundreds of remote access points requiring significant IT resources to manage, plus hardware costs, software subscription and support.  All to effectively deliver the same functionality...

There is however an argument to be made that some remote workers need to connect - multiple devices such as printers at home - and that does play into one of the strengths of microbranch as it extends security to all the endpoints in a location. In our experience, most users own their own printers at home – they’re rarely supplied by the business – so expecting staff to connect them to a corporate network is a tall order.

The weaknesses of VPN do start to appear when there are multiple people in a location needing to connect, and that’s where microbranch gets a bit more interesting.

Australian microbranch use cases

Microbranch use cases are a bit limited in corporate Australia compared to the U.S. because there is less of a campus mentality. While U.S. customers tend to have large campuses with their main headquarters and a bunch of branch offices scattered across the country, in Australia, it’s a little different. Most companies are set up in a major capital city, or if they are in multiple states, they have a significant office in each city.

If we look at industries like retail though, with many locations spread around the country, a microbranch solution starts to look like a more appealing alternative. 

Likewise, large scale functions such as conferences or public events - such as the Formula 1 - would benefit from quick to deploy enterprise-grade networks with performance, security and reliability.

The construction and mining industries may also be a good fit. Large scale construction sites utilise site offices that need connectivity as do mining sites, but they rarely deploy networking infrastructure with on-site staff relying instead on VPNs or 4G for connectivity. It’s these pop-up sites where microbranch starts to make a lot of sense.

Similarly, we can see some benefits in project offices within shared working spaces. In this case, an access point could be deployed rather than connections being routed through the shared infrastructure of the building.

With a simple Aruba remote access point, an NBN connection and Aruba Central, IT can quickly set up a secure office for 3-5 people, plus peripherals, avoiding the need to invest in permanent networking solutions for any of these use cases. 

The Technology behind the microbranch

As mentioned earlier, microbranch is not a singular product, but rather a combination powered by the Aruba EdgeConnect Enterprise SD-WAN platform, a recent acquisition from Silver Peak. The solution brings together:

  • Aruba EdgeConnect Enterprise physical or virtual SD-WAN appliances deployed in branch offices to create a secure, virtual network overlay.
  • Aruba Orchestrator to deliver visibility into both legacy and cloud applications and centrally assign policies based on business intent to secure and control all WAN traffic.
  • Aruba Boost as an optional WAN optimisation performance pack to accelerate the performance of latency-sensitive applications and minimise the transmission of repetitive data across the WAN.

These are not new solutions as we’d normally think of them, but a re-packaging of existing solutions to exploit inherent capabilities for specific use cases so there is plenty of other information available if you want to learn more.

What’s the score?

We’re giving Aruba Microbranch a Matrix Importance Score of 3 - Useful unless you’re in one of the industries we highlighted above where it would rate a 4.

Microbranch allows secure and seamless connectivity using enterprise networks at edge locations, but given the limited use cases here in Australia, moving away from VPNs to the microbranch model is hard to justify (cost vs performance) for all but a few industries.

For those of you joining us for the first time, and to refresh the memory of returnees, a Matrix Importance Scale (MIS) is used to measure the level of importance of this technology for you:

  • 1. Yawn: Don’t waste your time unless you’re bored
  • 2. Interesting: Could be good to know just in case
  • 3. Useful: Keep an eye on this, but nothing you need to do now
  • 4. Important: You definitely need to know about this - now
  • 5. Critical: What do you mean you haven’t started implementing this?