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by Andrew Froehlich

SD-WAN user experience is a strong illustration of SD-WAN benefits and impact on the business as a whole.

For better or worse, most discussions about SD-WAN look at wireless issues from a technical point of view. While this is valuable, it avoids a basic issue: how end users experience software-defined wide area network (SD-WAN) technology. Sometimes, that indicates that not enough thought has been given to what end users on the remote side of the WAN should expect or how the SD-WAN user experience reflects whether the deployment is having a positive impact on the business.

In this article, we’ll briefly explore two key ways in which SD-WAN technologies can benefit users. Then, we’ll further explain the benefits using three use-case scenarios. These examples will illustrate how SD-WAN can improve WAN usability and reliability.

How SD-WAN benefits for end users

To understand what a user can expect with SD-WAN, it’s important to note two aspects of the technology that create benefits.

First, SD-WAN exploits two or more WAN links in an active-active manner. Data can be sent and received on both links. This differs from traditional enterprise WAN designs that place secondary links in a passive mode. Until the primary link fully drops because of failure, the secondary connection will sit idle.

Second, the artificial intelligence (AI) within SD-WAN enables a network administrator to easily identify and prioritize data flows based on which application these flows belong to. Additionally, SD-WAN AI continuously monitors all WAN links in real time to determine the optimal data flow path. Thus, data is not only prioritized but also distributed across a WAN link so it can travel the fastest path at any given moment.

That said, let’s look at real-world scenarios where a user would clearly benefit from an SD-WAN deployment.

Scenario 1: Fewer network outages

WAN deployments using a traditional active-passive setup may not provide the expected redundancy. Often, a primary link may be significantly degraded while not technically being down. Traditional redundancy and failover mechanisms cannot properly handle degraded circuits. What ends up happening is that users’ data will be sent across the suboptimal link – or encounter a situation where a data path is constantly flapping between active and passive links. This translates into poor connectivity – and, ultimately, user frustration.

Users experiencing this same degraded link scenario while on an SD-WAN deployed architecture will have a vastly different experience. That’s because an SD-WAN does not rely on underlying network routing protocols to make data-path decisions. Instead, specialized network-health probes are continually sent back and forth across all WAN links. These probes are far more adept at identifying when a circuit is congested and degraded. Thus, intelligence embedded in the SD-WAN network through AI can make the decision to re-route user data on a more optimal path.

While this process is invisible and seamless for the user, it creates a situation where major performance issues on a WAN are far less noticeable when compared with traditional redundancy methods. That means that WAN degradation will affect users less frequently and less severely. The ultimate benefit is that users can spend their time being productive instead of reporting a performance problem to the IT service desk.

Scenario 2: Prioritization of mission-critical apps

We live in a time where many of our applications are web based. As a result, most or all data flows operate using HTTP (TCP port 80) or HTTPS (TCP 443) protocols. This shift toward a web-centric application structure has made it problematic to identify mission-critical data flows – and give them preferential treatment. For example, network administrators find it difficult to create a standard quality-of-service (QoS) policy to give priority to a company’s web-based business app that operates over HTTPS when compared with a nonessential YouTube video (also using HTTPS) that’s being streamed.

Yet, with SD-WAN, there are several identification methods that can be employed to differentiate between applications that use the same underlying port and protocol information. Thus, mission-critical data flows can be easily identified and given preferential treatment. From a user’s perspective, their most important work will not be affected when a corporate WAN gets congested or misused.

What does this mean for remote workers on the other side of an SD-WAN? For most, it means achieving a corporate LAN-like network experience—with high performance and low latency—while operating over a WAN. It’s something that remote office workers have wanted for years. With SD-WAN, the same level of performance and redundancy can be achieved. The SD-WAN benefits come to the fore by looking at the experience of remote workers.

Scenario 3: Speed of deployment

Branch offices are often not as static as corporate offices. New branches are rapidly set up, and others are taken down equally swiftly. In rapidly changing businesses, the speed at which a branch office can be deployed and put into full-production is of great importance to users. Without the necessary WAN connectivity, users in a branch can’t be productive.

In this scenario, SD-WAN benefits emerge for two reasons. First, because connectivity is far more efficient through an active-active architecture, many WAN administrators find they no longer need to purchase and wait weeks or months to deploy expensive private WAN connections such as Multiprotocol Label Switching. Instead, it’s being discovered that two or more broadband Internet connections can be used just as effectively. Thus, not only do you save money on WAN connectivity, you also save time deploying the WAN circuits your remote site requires.

Second, and often more important, the WAN connectivity options increase greatly. Connectivity methods that previously were excluded due to slow speeds, high latency or general reliability concerns can now be incorporated into a WAN architecture without affecting users. This is because of the underlying intelligence of SD-WAN architecture will constantly make performance routing decisions – and thus know when to use a path and when to not. As a result, wireless point-to-point, 4G/LTE and even satellite technologies can confidently and rapidly be deployed in several branch office locations where traditional WAN carrier options are unavailable.

For users, this speeds up the time a branch office can be brought into production. Instead of having to wait weeks or months for a carrier to build and deploy its expensive private circuits to a new remote location, you can proceed more quickly with broadband, 4G, point-to-point or satellite technologies. SD-WAN can squeeze more performance from these inferior technologies – often to the point where performance and reliability differences are negligible. Thanks to SD-WAN architecture, the time users have to wait for a WAN connection is significantly reduced.

Users will notice SD-WAN technology

In many cases, technologies are implemented without users noticing. Other technologies are a headache when users are forced to change work behaviors and processes. Yet with SD-WAN, not only will branch office workers notice performance and reliability gains, they aren't required to do anything in return. If you’re looking for a low-impact way to boost productivity at remote sites in a noticeable way, SD-WAN may be just the technology you need.

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Andrew Froehlich

Andrew Froelhich is the president of West Gate Networks, an IT consultancy and services provider. He has been involved in enterprise IT for more than 15 years. His primary focus is Cisco wired and wireless, voice-network design, implementation and support as well as network security. Froehlich has experience with network infrastructure upgrades and new buildouts. He's also been heavily involved in data center architectures designed to provide fault-tolerant enterprise applications and services to thousands of users.