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SD-WAN adoption starts to bring ROI

SD-WAN adoption has made cost savings and simplified management a reality. But enterprises need to implement thoughtfully.

It was February 2017, and Fox Broadcasting Co. was gearing up to air the Super Bowl. For this highly visible broadcast, which would end up being among the most-watched TV programs in U.S. history, the company had myriad cameras and production trucks ready to transmit the show, from instant replays to the half-time performance.

“If you saw the Super Bowl, you saw software-defined networking,” said Thomas Edwards, vice president of engineering and development at Fox, at a panel on SD-WAN adoption at the Interop 2017 conference. “You saw live production video inside the trucks being routed using SDN or an Ethernet IP switch inside the trucks.” 

software-defined wide area network (SD-WAN) is an architecture that uses software-defined networking (SDN) to send data over large geographic distances, direct traffic and improve connectivity. Using virtualization, SD-WAN simplifies WAN management and enables lower-cost intranet links. SD-WAN is particularly useful for global companies with branch offices as well as for business in the retail and financial services industries.

Fox uses SDN, which abstracts networking routing from hardware into software, to control its video transmission. The company needs iron-clad control over video for telecasts such as the Super Bowl. 

“We want the precise video flows going where we want them to go, with the right traffic priority classes,” Edwards said. “We don’t want any packets moving on these networks without prior authorization.” Ultimately, he said, this “fine-grained control” enables delivering the right broadcast experience to viewers.

“If we screw up something like the Super Bowl, you’re in trouble; you have 120 million people watching,” Edwards noted.

When SD-WAN adoption makes sense

Industry data suggests that SD-WAN is gathering steam – with some caveats.

According to data from Gartner Inc., a research firm, 30% of enterprises will use SD-WAN technology in all of their branches by the end of 2019.

Fueled by cloud computing and mobility trends, SD-WAN adoption is predicted to become a $6 billion market by 2020, according to analyst firm IDC.

“As public and private cloud use continues to grow, WAN performance becomes critical to latency-sensitive and mission-critical workloads and inter-data center business continuity,” said Rohit Mehra, vice president of network infrastructure at IDC, in a release summarizing the findings.

SD-WAN enables enterprises to reduce or eliminate reliance on more costly multiprotocol label switching (MPLS) circuits by sending lower priority, less-sensitive data over Internet circuits, which tend to be cheaper. SD-WAN can be a boon for branch offices looking to boost bandwidth without increasing IT costs.

That’s why a major apparel retailer began using SDN-WAN for more than 1,300 stores to handle e-commerce and in-store transaction processing. “There’s an 80% chance if you shopped our brands after 2015, the credit card transaction would have traveled through our SDN network,” said the company’s network architect. When the company wanted to extend its bandwidth to new stores, it quickly decided that SDN was more promising than MPLS.

“All stores were running on MPLS for many years,” the network architect recalled. “In this day and age where everything is moving to cloud, everything is getting centralized, 1.5 Mb of data wasn’t enough for us to run our business. We wanted to create the bandwidth in all stores, but MPLS would have been crazy expensive."

In addition to cost savings, the architect noted, the move to SDN has improved security and business agility. “There are a lot of cost savings, and we can quickly deploy new stores, instead of waiting for MPLS,” the network architect said. “We have increased security. All these [aspects of SD-WAN] are helping business giving them more bandwidth so that they can come up with new projects.”

Similarly, Edwards said that as 10 Gigabit Ethernet started coming down in price, Fox’s IT teams started thinking, “Perhaps we should jump on this IP thing, and … with 25, 100, 400 Gig[abit Ethernet] around the corner, it makes sense,” he said.

Why SD-WAN doesn’t always make sense

Fox’s SD-WAN adoption has enabled the company to do things it couldn’t do previously. “We have opportunity to have more replay boxes, more monitoring of all video flows. There was no way to do it without IP and, frankly, without software-defined networking,” Edwards said.

While companies may clamor for the cost savings of SD-WAN, panelists at the Interop session cautioned that SD-WAN may not be the answer to every networking problem, and companies should use it wisely, not broadly.

“Ninety percent of networks don’t necessary need SDN; look for places where it can bring value and ROI,” Edwards said. “It’s a bit of a learning curve and a bit of an investment,” Edwards said. SD-WAN will likely bring the greatest ROI in its key use case: simplifying management and reducing cost for branch connectivity.

SDN also raises the bar for developer skill sets in the data center environment. “[IT teams] need to be programming enough to know what is possible in software and what isn’t possible,” said Gert Vanderstraeten, a network architect in Microsoft's IT organization.

Vanderstraeten emphasized that organizations like the Linux Foundation’s Open Daylight project, an open source community, for software-defined networking, can also fill in knowledge gaps as companies gain their footing in SD-WAN.

“There’s a large community;” Vanderstraeten said. “Just because you use open source doesn’t mean you want to be alone. We still want someone to help us out if we get into trouble.”

A third issue, panelists said, is the lack of standardization in the SD-WAN market, which can pose challenges in terms of managing and integrating different provider technologies. “There is no standard set of protocols for SD-WAN,” the retailer’s network architect said.

As Fox’s Edwards noted, many companies have embraced SD-WAN but have been disheartened by the lack of vendor integration. “The promise of the OpenFlow [standard] was ‘One protocol to rule them all’ southbound of the SDN controller, but the reality has been no, it’s just doesn’t work that way.”

Edwards said that the market still needs to coalesce around standardization, but that's not imminent. “We’ll have to see whether there is at some point the ability to standardize the southbound interface from the controller to the data plane,” Edwards said.

Making standardization the norm “will take time,” Vanderstraeten said.

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Lauren Horwitz

Lauren Horwitz is the managing editor of Cisco.com, where she covers the IT infrastructure market and develops content strategy. Previously, Horwitz was a senior executive editor in the Business Applications and Architecture group at TechTarget;, a senior editor at Cutter Consortium, an IT research firm; and an editor at the American Prospect, a political journal. She has received awards from American Society of Business Publication Editors (ASBPE), a min Best of the Web award and the Kimmerling Prize for best graduate paper for her editing work on the journal article "The Fluid Jurisprudence of Israel's Emergency Powers.”