Organizations are rapidly deploying software-defined wide-area networks (SD-WANs) as they continue to search for solutions that will increase network performance and reduce costs. Is it just latest networking technology fad, or will SD-WANs replace existing WAN links that use MPLS?
The answer is that not only are SD-WANs able to replace most existing WAN links, organizations that do so gain advantages. Reducing costs was the initial focus of this technology, as companies looked for less expensive ways to interconnect remote sites by using Internet VPNs instead of expensive MPLS links. Since then, vendors have added features that take full advantage of multiple paths, higher-bandwidth broadband connections, and application-specific path selections to deliver higher performance.
Advanced SD-WAN solutions integrate sophisticated network design and management tools to simplify operations and boost flexibility in today’s hybrid private-network and public-cloud environments. The resulting combination of lower costs, better performance and enhanced business agility changes the question from “Can SD-WANs replace existing WANS?” to “When will SD-WANs replace existing WANs?”
Just the Beginning of the SD-WAN Era
Although SD-WAN technologies have been around for 10 years or more, adoption rates have accelerated over the past few. IT and data-management research firm Enterprise Management Associates (EMA) said in its Network Management Megatrends 2018 report, “The emergence of SD-WAN is notable. Adoption of this technology has been fast and furious over the past year, and now it is overtaking WAN optimization as a top driver of network management priorities.”
Other analysts are weighing in as well. In a recent blog post, Andrew Lerner, Vice President of Research at advisory firm Gartner, affirms that “while many networking technologies are over-hyped as the next big thing, SD-WAN is delivering on the promise. In just three short years, adoption has taken off and we now estimate 6,000+ paying SD-WAN customers with more than 4,000 production implementations. We recommend you look at SD-WAN when refreshing WAN edge equipment, renegotiating a carrier contract, building out new branches, or aggressively moving apps to the cloud (among other reasons).”
Organizations are adopting SD-WANs for a variety of reasons. Digital business transformation is one motivation, as companies look for ways to create innovative new services and improve customer experiences. Another is the growing adoption of public-cloud infrastructure and software-as-a-service (SaaS), which are helping to reduce IT costs and increase business agility. Finally, the importance of the network in an always-on world is driving a desire for more-effective and more-efficient network management.
Digital transformation is driving SD-WAN growth as organizations of all types focus on enhancing customer experiences, especially in the digital realm. Digital-experience innovation usually involves cloud services, mobile devices, Internet of Things (IoT) systems, big data and analytics, social media, or some combination thereof, yielding growth in network traffic and altered traffic patterns.
The network is becoming more strategic to business operations, and consequently network operations are collaborating more with the executive suite. SD-WANs help improve digital experiences, organizational transformation and strategic planning through central management of a full-mesh distributed network architecture, detailed traffic visibility and dynamic application optimization.
Network-traffic changes caused by public-cloud adoption are rapidly overtaking cost savings as a driver of SD-WAN deployment. On average, 45 percent of enterprise network traffic is going to and from public-cloud services, disrupting the traditional branch-to-data-center traffic patterns and hub-and-spoke MPLS links, according to the EMA 2018 Megatrends report.
With SD-WAN systems, branches can use readily available broadband Internet links, overlaid with secure encrypted tunnels, and send public-cloud traffic directly to the Internet. As organizations become more familiar with the full capabilities of their SD-WANs, their networks benefit from features such as integrated one-click provisioning to virtual private clouds, dynamic path selection and detailed enterprise policy rules. It’s a major improvement from traditional MPLS WANs, which can take weeks or even months to set up new connections and which experience considerable delays backhauling traffic to the data center for inspection.
Part of the push toward SD-WAN is doubtless tied to increasing pressure to improve uptimes, increase operational efficiency and converge network operations with IT security. Industry research by EMA highlights that network-configuration changes and errors cause one-third of network problems, which can be largely eliminated by using SD-WAN systems. With network downtime estimated at $100,000 per hour for small networks and substantially more for large ones, reducing downtime by more than 30 percent represents considerable savings.
Fragmented tools are another issue readily resolved by the central and integrated management tools of SD-WANs. Half of the organizations that EMA surveyed were using between 4 and 10 network tools, and more than a quarter were using 11 or more. The more tools in use, the more likely the organization was reacting to user reports of network problems instead of actively addressing them before they could hurt the business. Comprehensive GUI management interfaces, instead of cryptic command-line interfaces, increase operational efficiency and reduce or eliminate the need to send IT resources to branch locations.
Using SD-WAN, operations teams also get up-to-date information and end-to-end traffic details, available for everything connected to every port on every site and readily filtered by host, device, application or user. Business-language rules, based on user and application identity, enforce corporate policies and deliver consistent digital experiences regardless of location. Consolidated security, with built-in firewalls and full-mesh VPNs, improves security posture and reduces the need for separate security appliances. Traffic goes to the appropriate security systems, whether in the data center or a cloud security provider, for Internet-bound traffic and advanced threat detection.
Network Transformation Is Inevitable
Software-defined WANs are becoming a foundational technology for digital experiences. Competitive forces are driving this digital transformation, requiring a different and more cost-effective network architecture. As the network becomes more strategic, static connections, fragmented management systems and central traffic bottlenecks prevent digital businesses from providing the necessary agility. SD-WANs are still progressing, but they’re already delivering more than just cost savings, making them an essential component of the modern enterprise and a worthy replacement for existing WANs.
About the Author
Gayle Levin is director of solutions marketing at Riverbed Technologies. Previously, she held product marketing and campaign roles at VMware, Oracle and Splunk as well as several startups. Her interests lie in the impact of technology on the way we think and work today.