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Benefits of branching out into SD-WAN

There is much more to SD-WAN than just cheaper branch office connectivity, so IT buyers have a lot to consider

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IT departments are being urged to refresh branch wide area network (WAN) equipment with software-defined wide area networks (SD-WANs) as they migrate applications to the cloud and renew network contracts.

There’s nothing that the technology industry likes more than the next big thing. Over the last decade, enterprise networking has experienced many big things. Along with the immense interest in 5G mobile networking, software-defined networking, particularly within wide area networks, is a technology trend that has been gaining a lot of attention.

In 2019, traditional suppliers of networking equipment pivoted away from hardware to software. For some, this was a huge development – upturning many decades’ worth of hardware experience and their underlying business models.

Business culture changes

SD-WANs benefit both the management of network equipment and network services, and potentially pave the way to business culture changes. As such, an SD-WAN should not only be regarded as a replacement for traditional networks, but as a core technical component in cloud native architectures and digital transformation initiatives.

In its July 2019 Hype cycle for enterprise networking report, analyst Gartner said the main purpose of emerging SD-WAN products is to create simpler and more cost-effective branch office WANs that map to modern application and cloud architectures.

For many businesses, cost savings and efficiency gains are the principal benefits they gain as they transition branch office connectivity from “traditional” WAN, based on multi-protocol label switching (MPLS) networks to software-defined architectures.

In the report, the analyst firm said it was seeing “rampant client interest” in SD-WAN products. “We estimate that more than 10,000 customers have deployed SD-WAN products in production networks,” said Gartner. “We expect continued rapid growth of SD-WAN deployments, and forecast vendor revenue to grow at more than 35%.”

Beyond cost savings

An SD-WAN offers a much more agile and affordable platform compared with traditional branch office network connectivity, as it avoids organisations having to make relatively costly capital expenditure (capex)-intensive purchases. All costs are now transformed to operational expenditure (opex).

With the addition of aggregation technologies, centralised management and application-aware routing, SD-WAN delivers flexible and scalable connectivity that can be significantly cheaper than a traditional WAN architecture. But there is much more to SD-WAN than just cheaper branch office connectivity, so IT buyers have a lot more to consider.

For instance, Brad Casemore, vice-president of research, datacentre networks at IDC, says: “As the digital transformation initiatives and cloud strategies of large enterprises mature and become increasingly sophisticated, SD-WAN offerings must be capable not only of scaling to accommodate large numbers of sites, but also of providing multi-tenant and segmentation capabilities that the world’s largest enterprise customers demand for control, manageability and consistent security across multi-cloud environments.”

In December 2019, a study from Cato Networks found that failing to fully consider digital transformation requirements can undermine firms’ long-term SD-WAN satisfaction. The fourth annual state of the WAN report, Networking in 2020: Understanding digital transformation’s impact on IT confidence in enterprise networks, said nearly three-quarters of respondents expressed significantly less confidence in their networks after digital transformation.

IT buyers need to think beyond treating SD-WAN as a replacement for an existing MPLS network, says Shlomo Kramer, CEO and co-founder of Cato Networks. “Enterprises need to anticipate their future requirements if they are to remain confident in their WAN transformation,” he says. “Thinking only about MPLS replacement leads to incremental, point solution acquisitions when confronted by digital initiatives, making their networks more complex and costly to run.”

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Cato Networks survey highlights importance of considering not only SD-WAN as an MPLS replacement but also its applicability to the broader needs of the digital business, such as cloud migration and network agility.

Most respondents to the Cato Networks survey said cloud applications would be more critical to their organisations over the next 12 months than applications hosted in their private datacentres. Yet, according to some experts, IT buyers need to be aware that some SD-WAN products and services require additional software and integration to support their organisations’ cloud strategy.

Sunil Khandekar, CEO of Nokia’s Nuage Networks, says: “Essentially, SD-WAN is a shiny new thing that [the supplier community] has taken and painted their legacy appliances with and called it ‘SD-WAN’, which has created confusion. Unfortunately, enterprises have to sort through all of this to find an SD-WAN solution that truly meets their evolved needs.”

For instance, Although there is a requirement for an SD-WAN to offer self-service, it is not necessarily self-managing. Khandekar believes mid-to-large enterprises are looking for highly integrated products that are best-of-breed and offer more than just bolted-on capabilities.

SD-WAN calls for a culture change and assessment of priorities

For Shashi Kiran, CPO at Aryaka, implementing any new technology brings cultural change and takes people outside their comfort zones, potentially disrupting their jobs. Kiran says: “SD-WAN [deployment] will be more of an evolution than a revolution. But, ultimately, SD-WAN will make businesses more transformative. And eventually, this is where CIOs are hanging their hats. They want the networks to be more responsive.”

Looking at Aryaka’s customers, Kiran adds: “They all feel the same sense of urgency – they all feel they need to be very competitive. What is interesting, though, is that a lot of them are stuck with [enabling] decisions that were made in the past. They have some technical legacy that they cannot get rid of easily. And sometimes it is very complex to rip out the old and get in the new.

“So they have to figure out, in this very complex landscape that they are given, where do they attack first and what area do they focus on first to transform, and then there is a cascading effect across the rest of the organisation. Some of it may be looking at applications that they want to move to the cloud; some of it may be changing certain processes. And they ask whether the network is holding them back from being fully productive.”

“Enterprises care about control, visibility, and end-to-end security,” he says. “They want to control how branches get connected to each other and the apps in the cloud. They care about the ability to have greater insight, understand what apps are being used and know when there are security issues.

“Pure-play SD-WANs – as opposed to bolt-on capabilities to existing routers or other branch appliances such as WAN-opt or firewall and claiming SD-WAN – allow enterprises to not only connect branches together automatically and securely, but they also give enterprises the ability to provide the same secure and automated connectivity from any branch to any cloud, private, public or SaaS [software as a service].”

For Khandekar, a successful SD-WAN requires a fundamentally sound, modern, purpose-built architecture to work properly in the long run. He warns that products lacking these attributes will limit an enterprise’s ability to deliver what the business needs.

Basic requirement

Making sure that networks are fully productive should be a basic requirement of any SD-WAN. Businesses should expect products that reduce complexity, and this is all eminently possible, according to Eric Broockman, CTO of Extreme Networks. “Low-cost and high-speed consumer-grade circuits [in SD-WANs] have provided companies with the option of delivering reliable and inexpensive access to remote locations,” he says.

“However, even as SD-WAN adoption was initially driven by WAN technologies, what most customers quickly discovered is that the most powerful features of these solutions included the ability to simplify visibility, management, and extend user access policies to branches by using cloud networking technologies.  Cloud not only enables these critical functions, but also delivers the ability to integrate new technologies as they emerge. Now, in this burgeoning era of new wireless technologies like 5G, new opportunities to further simplify the branch office are upon us.”

The year 2020 seems certain to be huge for SD-WAN. Analyst IDC forecasts that this year will see the kick-start to a surge in SD-WAN spend that will exceed $5bn by the end of 2023.

Getting SD-WAN to work is all about creating a platform that helps enterprises connect users to their applications anywhere, in any cloud and aligning IT with the business needs. But it will only be successful if, and only if, the right conditions are present in businesses and new working methodologies are undertaken. It is not going to be the case that technology suppliers will implement a network or a circuit and then leave.

With SD-WAN, suppliers will need to go deep inside the end-user organisation and customer’s environment, an exercise that might not be comfortable for many. And to make this arrangement work means articulating precisely the value of such collaboration and how such a way of working will help to solve the organisation’s business challenges.

Read more on Software-defined networking (SDN)

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