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Five SD-WAN trends that will define the future market

by Andrew Froehlich

SD-WAN initially helped branch users connect to corporate LANs. But there are several new SD-WAN trends that will expand the relevance of the technology.

As enterprises continue to move applications to the cloud, networking architectures such as SD-WAN have become increasingly important to accommodate cloud-based applications.

With more software as a service (SaaS)-based applications in the cloud rather than residing in centralized data centers, data traffic patterns shift.

Enterprises see the ramifications of moving to the cloud loud and clear. Cloud-based apps and services can create a drag on app performance, boosting bandwidth costs and increasing data latency. Traditional wide area networks (WANs) aren’t equipped to handle these new data flows.

Accordingly, enterprises are considering new networking architectures such as software-defined wide area networks (SD-WANs) to address performance and management issues.

SD-WAN has already begun to change how customers manage branch offices to increase resiliency combined with low latency and jitter. The model for achieving this with today's SD-WAN tools is to place artificial intelligence (AI) at either side of a multi-connection WAN, then perform real-time analytics based on defined application-specific settings that indicate which data flows should have priority over others.

It's a simple way to get the most out of an existing WAN without an IT architecture overhaul. That said, now that SD-WAN is integrated in many enterprises in its most basic form, it's time to think bigger. Let's look at the key SD-WAN trends likely to emerge over the next few years from an enterprise IT perspective.

According to 2017 data by IDC, two-thirds of survey respondents indicated that they were likely to deploy SD-WAN within the next two years (see Figure 1). Not surprisingly, cloud usage is a driver: More than 90% of respondents plan to use SaaS-based applications in the next 12 months.

In our first discussion of SD-WAN, we looked at the state of the SD-WAN market today. In what follows, we explore the future of SD-WAN and five SD-WAN trends we might see.

Figure 1. Source: IDC’s Software-Defined WAN Survey, August 2017; n = 1,208

An “SD-WAN-first” approach

Early implementations of SD-WAN were commonly deployed within the confines of existing WAN structures. These were often built around carrier Ethernet as the primary link and standard broadband/VPN as a secondary connection.

Now that SD-WAN has proven itself to be an effective asset at the WAN edge, IT architects are re-evaluating their existing WAN architecture to better exploit SD-WAN’s performance and cost-savings benefits. The assumption is that SD-WAN will be deployed, so it’s a default part of the equation for all WAN deployments moving forward.

For the most part, having an SD-WAN-first approach means you’ve factored in the benefits. Usually this means right-sizing connectivity to branch locations based on expected performance that can be achieved through SD-WAN features. Sizing not only includes the recommended throughput required for a remote site but also the WAN connectivity type selected. For example, WAN architects that are comfortable with the capabilities of SD-WAN may opt to deploy dual Internet broadband connections as opposed to a more expensive Multiprotocol Label Switching (MPLS). These design changes can result in massive operational expense (Opex) savings for businesses. It’s important to note that while right-sizing a WAN is important for the bottom line, an architecture needs to be able to scale up or down as needed, particularly for cloud-based architectures.

User performance management

User performance management initially gained traction on wireless LANs (WLANs). But today it enables performance gains based on an individual user’s – or a group of users’ – determination of “business critical” app functionality.

A WAN initially built on overall network performance has evolved into an SD-WAN that governed by application-based performance. Future SD-WAN deployments will likely provide greater granularity and treat data flows according to what an individual user determines are the most important data flows to get his or her work completed.

While user-performance management is a way to exploit advancements in AI, the complexity of managing user-based policies will increase. For some, managing the underlying infrastructure in addition to user performance policies may become overwhelming. That’s why some businesses will choose to offload some management tasks to a third-party provider.

SD-WAN as-a-service

The easiest and most time-efficient way for enterprises to implement today’s SD-WAN technologies into existing WAN edge architecture has been to do it themselves. However, as IT decision-makers evaluate their long-term WAN strategy, it becomes apparent that it takes time and effort to create and manage application- and user-specific policies. Thus, some are concluding that to reduce the overall in-house manpower spent on WAN architecture, it’s better to have a third-party provider manage the underlying SD-WAN infrastructure while leaving the policy creation and management to in-house staff.

SD-WAN as-a-service providers can manage everything from circuit up/down/degraded statuses to managing the routing protocols running between corporate and remote offices. What’s left for in-house IT staff is to build policy based on what data flows are considered important to the business. The drawback, of course, is that the business becomes reliant on a third party for overall operation of the WAN from layers 1 to 4 of the Open Systems Interconnection (or OSI) model. It should be noted that managed SD-WAN as-as-service is no different from a risk perspective than other managed service provider relationships.

SD-WAN as part of a multicloud strategy

First-generation SD-WAN platforms are being integrated into hybrid cloud computing strategies as well. A hybrid cloud is when you connect a privately operated data center with a single public or private cloud provider. Policies are then shared between the two so that the appearance and operation are identical from an end-user – and an administrative -- perspective.

As cloud ambitions grow, most IT departments find benefits from a performance, reliability and security perspective when they deploy their services throughout multiple cloud service provider networks. Previously, multicloud strategies proved difficult because each cloud platform was managed using different tools and application programming interfaces, or APIs. Thus, creating identical network, security and application policies across multiple cloud infrastructures–in addition to a private data center–was too cumbersome to maintain. However, multicloud management platforms have emerged to help administrators create a centralized and universal network policy strategy that can be automated and pushed out to most of the popular public cloud platforms available today.

Now that multicloud strategies are a viable option, look for SD-WAN to begin creeping into the overall architecture by providing the same performance and latency benefits as they currently offer between corporate and remote offices. Only, this time, SD-WAN will be deployed between two or more public clouds managed by different service providers.

SD-WAN to remote users

Lastly, look for SD-WAN to break free from static remote-site and cloud deployments and instead deliver these services directly to end users no matter where they are located. By combining separate paths using broadband/Wi-Fi and carrier wireless technologies such as LTE and 4G/5G, SD-WAN can be brought directly to the desktop for remote or at-home users. We’re already seeing carrier wireless being used as part of an overall SD-WAN strategy for branch offices.

So it’s only a matter of time before SD-WAN can be deployed anywhere. This will be possible, regardless of whether a user is at a branch office, at home or at a coffee shop thousands of miles away. Although this future SD-WAN trend is likely to be further down the road of the five future predictions presented in this article, this one has the potential for the largest impact. This is especially true since there continues to be a continued uptick in remote workforces.

This is only the beginning

There is so much interest in the corporate WAN edge partly because traditional 9-to-5 jobs inside a corporate office are becoming a thing of the past; mobility is redefining how we work. While SD-WAN may have initially caught our eye to provide better service to branch offices, the technology has far more to offer. There is little doubt that SD-WAN technology will continue to evolve to provide users improved connectivity services that allow them to further break away from the corporate LAN.

Stay tuned as we watch these SD-WAN trends mature.

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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.