SD-WAN de-mystified

IDC predicts that the SD-WAN market will be worth $2.1bn (£1.4bn) in Europe by 2021. That’s a staggering 92% growth each year.

The technology has been gathering pace in the US for some time, where it is being widely adopted as the next generation WAN providing cloud access, improved application availability and performance, with more flexibility than legacy networks. This is now driving demand for SD-WAN in Europe with the expectation that it can solve significant retail challenges.

What is SD-WAN?

Basically it is a software based technology solution that enables network infrastructure managers to control the management of the network from a central point. This means we can now set up centralised policies for how things run over the network and deploy those policies from a central point without the need to manually implement the policy at an individual branch router level.

Because SD-WAN provides an overlay to the existing WAN infrastructure, it can be used with any connectivity type. This means that it can dynamically route network traffic across any connection type available.

What are the different approaches to SD-Wan?

There are two core ways of deploying an SD-WAN solution: edge enabled and cloud enabled.

With edge enabled SD-WAN the intelligence sits at the network edge. It involves installing hardware at the branch site with augmented edge security. The central management controls the SD-WAN device which then in turn controls the infrastructure that sits behind it.

Cloud enabled SD-WAN sees the intelligence sitting in the cloud as opposed to at the network edge. It may well involve a requirement to update existing routers depending on their age.

Each option has pros and cons. Cloud based solutions may well be based on relationships with individual service providers or be the proposition from service providers themselves.  This can sometimes limit flexibility for the customer or can extend the time it takes to deploy for a new site, for example.

An edge based deployment delivers more flexibility in terms of connectivity. The edge device doesn’t care what connectivity type is in place or who the connectivity is provided by. This is appealing to organisations that have a multi-national presence or who have sites distributed across very disparate locations. It could also make speed of deployment to new sites much quicker as connectivity can be provided by multiple suppliers.

When deploying a cloud based solution, management is always part of the package. It’s effectively SaaS. This can help drive resource efficiencies. However, the underlying WAN router infrastructure will still need to be managed so this is not a fully hands off approach.

An edge based deployment can be managed in-house or handled by a managed service provider. Ultimately, organisations considering SD-WAN as a solution need to assess which deployment type is best for their particular needs.

So why are we getting interested in SD-WAN?

With the benefits of SD-WAN in terms of providing better WAN availability, application performance and network resilience being seen across the US, the technology is starting to gain momentum in Europe. But why now?

Fundamentally it’s because the wide area network has become more strategically important to many businesses than it has ever been before. This step change in the importance of the network is being driven by two key changes in the focus of businesses across Europe.

Firstly, the move to delivering applications via the cloud has put more demand on wide area networks. Clearly, more capacity is needed to deliver these applications to the user.

Secondly, many organisations are looking to digitally transform their business. Much of this is driven by a need to enhance the customer experience and improve employee productivity. Both of these outcomes will be enabled through bandwidth hungry applications. This, of course, puts even more strain on Wide Area Networks.

SD-WAN offers an appealing response to these challenges.  

By delivering centralised management of network traffic policies it enables network managers to prioritise traffic and then dynamically route that traffic, according to priority level across any available connection to the site. This means that all available bandwidth is used effectively all of the time, including previously tagged ‘just in case’ back up lines that would historically be dormant for most of the time.  As a result, existing connectivity is used more effectively which negates the need to add more to cope with an increasing number of applications.

What’s more, because of the intelligence in the dynamic path routing, businesses can experience much more predictable availability of applications. In terms of enhancement of the customer experience, this is a compelling outcome. Offering additional services to customers such as free Wi-Fi or augmented reality services will only add value if those services are available to the customer when they try to use them.

Of course, with any new technology, businesses will be looking to drive efficiencies that lower costs and reduce pressure on stretched resources. SD-WAN is set to deliver on this too. A cost benefit analysis is likely to show improvement on both of these points.

But SD-WAN is a technology that is not just about cost efficiency. It can empower organisations to deliver on commercial objectives. The key here will be identifying which flavour of SD-WAN is best for your business by fully evaluating the options available and mapping them against both the structure and complexity of your business estate and the key challenges you are trying to address.

Vanessa Armstrong is the head of marketing at Hughes Europe, the leading provider of high-quality, resilient and cost-effective broadband networks along with employee and customer facing digital media solutions.

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