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SD-WAN keeps Darling Ingredients on the table through Covid-19 pandemic

For some businesses, the Covid-19 pandemic and the resulting need to support mass remote working will have accelerated something they began working on some time ago. Darling Ingredients is one such firm, whose SD-WAN roll-out puts it in good stead for the future

They say a week is a long time in politics; in the post-Covid world, it probably feels a whole lot shorter. Since lockdowns and stay-at-home orders were announced, time seems to be a very abstract concept. Yet in the business world, that really doesn’t mean anything. Business has to go on, no matter where workers are located, nor indeed where they will likely be located in the future.

This has meant an unprecedented dependence on the business network, primarily as a means of business continuity and keeping the lights on, and now as the infrastructure on which a whole new hybrid model of working will be based. In this new world, cloud-based solutions will be ever more important, as will applications such as video conferencing on which dispersed teams will depend. That’s the new normal.

But business leaders with a distributed business had already been thinking about the distributed topologies and infrastructures that would support their future – and for some time before the outbreak of Covid-19.

As 2019 turned into 2020, it marked the end of what was truly the year of the software-defined wide area network (SD-WAN). Moreover, the growing global adoption of cloud computing has been a boon to SD-WAN, which even before March 2020 was seeing an uptick in demand as more enterprises looked to speed up connectivity and improve network resiliency, two facets which have only become more important.

For sustainable food company Darling Ingredients, the Covid-19 pandemic has resulted in its use and deployment of SD-WAN increase rapidly over the past nine months, and facing the new working realities, such usage will only grow.

SD-WAN all the way

Tracing its roots back to the late 19th century, Darling Ingredients has evolved from a small rendering company to become what it says is the world’s leading innovative developer and producer of sustainable organic ingredients for a growing population. Its products and services portfolio is active all over the world, customised for high-end markets and local needs. The portfolio encompasses health products such as pharmaceutical, medical and nutraceutical products, as well as nutrients – including food, feed and fertiliser manufacturers – plus bioenergy and services.

Said to be the only publicly traded company in its industry, Darling Ingredients is headquartered in Irving, Texas, and operates a network of over 200 facilities worldwide, staffed by approximately 10,000 dedicated employees providing services and products to diverse international markets. Off the bat, Darling has been a company where distributed networking has been fundamentally essential and where the transition to an SD-WAN, implemented by Aryaka, began over three years ago.

“We’ve always had a philosophy in our IT department that it should be ‘any time, any device, anywhere’ – even before Covid. Our users’ ability to work is not tied to a physical location”
Alex Lai, Darling Ingredients

That was when the company first began to look at the correct decision-making process, the vetting and the research that was necessary as it began to convert all of its many sites from legacy multiprotocol label switching (MPLS) networks. Despite what has happed over the past nine months, never mind the last three years, this strategy to go 100% SD-WAN has not changed.

“It’s SD-WAN all the way,” confirms global infrastructure network manager Alex Lai – and for good reason, he adds.

“The market is becoming more and more saturated with different vendors, solutions and definitions of SD-WAN and what it offers. At the time [of first making the move], our challenge was around Office 365. Back then, Microsoft didn’t have a very good network globally to support its suite, especially with Skype for Business.

“Additionally, we had a situation in China where any VPN that we set up ourselves, or with our provider, to another country [was not] very stable because it had to go through a Chinese firewall. We also recognised that we needed more bandwidth at each facility to support the newer generation of applications. For example, we’d had voice over IP for years, but [it was increasingly necessary to support] video and collaboration applications.

“Those were the three main drivers, from a technical standpoint, why we just couldn’t stay with MPLS anymore.”

Freedom of choice

By transitioning to SD-WAN, Darling Ingredients was able to get more bandwidth at a lower cost because it was no longer tied to MPLS providers’ offerings and their pricing. That essentially gave the company the freedom to shop the market and find whoever could bring the best bandwidth at the most attractive price.

A second major benefit was that with the Aryaka SD-WAN, Darling was able to route all the Office 365 traffic to the infrastructure supplier’s network instead of going out to the internet. By doing that, the company witnessed a more predictive experience for users when it came to the voice and video applications on which the business was relying, and also now with China.

The latter comes through an agreement that Aryaka has with the Chinese government, which means it can take traffic and not necessarily have to deal with the challenges that most of the Darling businesses have had to deal with, such as the national firewall, and also provide what is regarded as a very stable VPN experience to all of Darling’s Chinese locations.

Any time, any device, anywhere

Yet even though it made the call to go full steam ahead with SD-WAN and overcome the technical and political challenges surrounding the global network, just how was the business affected by Covid-19? The answer, says Lai, is not particularly negatively, as the company strived to make sure remote workers could access what they were used to in the office.

ldquo;For a period of time, all of our office-based, non-essential workers were working remotely [over the] SD-WAN environments,” he says. When people started returning to the office in June, it had to provide at least 50% capacity for such workers, but it also needed to offer the same experience for remote users, making sure they didn’t lose any service and that none of their applications were compromised.

“Our environment was always built [to go] all the way from the laptop to the infrastructure that supports remote applications,” says Lai. “We’ve always had a philosophy in our IT department that it should be ‘any time, any device, anywhere’ – even before Covid. We’ve always developed this mentality around things such as disaster recovery and resiliency so that our users’ ability to work is not tied to a physical location.”

With the need to segue quickly to distributed conferencing, with increases in uploads from the likes of video conferencing, Darling has seen a significant upsurge in peak and aggregate traffic data. Microsoft Teams is the video-conferencing application of choice for Darling, but it also accommodates others such as Zoom and WebEx.

While noting that traffic has risen sharply, Lai says he was happy that up to 80% of the company’s sites had upgraded internet bandwidth to deal with this kind of traffic before Covid-19 struck and that a great benefit of SD-WAN is a more robust internet connection.

Building on business value

With a new business cadence driven by Covid-19, the company has now reached the stage where it is looking more strategically at how the SD-WAN is utilised. Lai reveals that Aryaka has been a valuable partner in this. He offers a good example of this through a business line.

“We have several lines of business that deal with organic ingredients. While certain lines of business have suffered, other lines of business have enjoyed unprecedented historical growth because of Covid,” he says. “We’re fortunate to be in a business where we deal with food [and its] by-products. We’re doing well business-wise, and because of that, we’re also doing well IT-wise. We’re not having to decide which projects we need to sacrifice or delay, so it’s still business as usual for us.”

“We’re doing well business-wise, and because of that, we’re also doing well IT-wise. We’re not having to decide which projects we need to sacrifice or delay, so it’s still business as usual for us”
Alex Lai, Darling Ingredients

The other aspect of the SD-WAN Lai regards as hugely beneficial is the feedback the company receives from its supplier. Aryaka is seen as particularly strong at engaging with Darling Ingredients and trying to provide more value. Lai cites specific examples of this in last-mile management and circuit provisioning for internet services.

“Aryaka knows some of the pain points we have and really gets in front of them,” he says. “[These include] how we classify applications running at each location; how we can get more visibility into what’s actually going on with network traffic at each location, or at the datacentre, to bring more value. [We can now ask whether something] is considered business-critical application traffic or just best effort, so [we can] better organise that traffic and make sure we get in front of the issues before they happen.”

Typically, issues are centred around the slow running of operations, the types of things for which Lai says the network team is the first to have to roll up its sleeves and take a look at why it’s slow, even though it may not be the network. In this regard, he says Aryaka has been helpful in identifying where trouble is occurring. He believes that 99% of the time, if it is a network issue it’s probably at the WAN level, and that it’s pretty rare to have something wrong at the LAN level. It’s the same for when certain applications aren’t performing, and the firm needs to make sure it’s not the WAN malfunctioning.

Business as usual

One of the only certainties of these uncertain times is that there is no endpoint for the uncertainty. Does this mean it is nigh-on impossible for firms such as Darling do the type of forward planning they’ve been used to because of Covid-19. Not really, says Lai.

“We may have missed a step [or two], but [Covid-19] hasn’t been a showstopper for us, and it hasn’t been disrupted business and IT,” he adds. “We continue. Some projects may have been delayed – because of resource requirements, like we needed to send somebody on-site and [that’s not possible] – but other than that, if all the resources for projects are remote, there’s really nothing stopping us from our usual planning.”

“We’ve been fortunate to adopt cloud early, SD-WAN early, remote working early. That’s why I think we were in a pretty good state to begin with. And that’s why, when crisis struck, it didn’t knock us too far back”
Alex Lai, Darling Ingredients

Looking at what may keep him up at night in the future, Lai notes that security has always been the biggest topic for Darling, but that he is fortunate to have a separate department within IT that deals with infosecurity and cyber security. Yet he says he feels a lot better than maybe two to three years ago when such events would indeed keep him up at night. Looking at what may be in his in-tray in the future, Lai concludes that being confident that the networking decisions it made before the Covid-19 outbreak have placed it in a good position to advance.

“We are a mergers and acquisitions company, and in every acquisition I’ve been through, the company we’ve purchased usually has a really poor network and IT in general. That means we need to standardise those environments so we can better manage the services we provide. There are always ongoing projects to bring updates and standardisation to networks.

“I think we have more focus around security, not just at the branch office, but for all users and devices. That’s about protection of your crown jewels: data. Instead of having to respond [to events], we’ve been fortunate to adopt cloud early, SD-WAN early, remote working early. That’s why I think we were in a pretty good state to begin with. And that’s why, when crisis struck, it didn’t knock us too far back.”

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