Software-defined networking in a wide area network, or SD-WAN, has become the new buzzword shaking up the industry as it promises optimised user experience and reduced cost. Networking is progressing and becoming ever more sophisticated at speed, and IT professionals are perpetually looking for the best method to ensure their businesses are operating as efficiently as possible.

The hype around SD-WAN, however, risks businesses being blinded by marketing and forking out needlessly for something that may not bring them the business benefit they are seeking.

IT professionals must be empowered to make decisions based on knowledge of what is best for the business. Since SD-WAN has resulted in much hype and misuse, business leaders can easily find themselves incorrectly perceiving this as a new and innovative solution, despite the fact that it has been around for several years now.

Comprehending what SD-WAN truly involves, where it fits, and debunking marketing myths, will make it clear whether it is a suitable choice for your business.

Evaluating the SD-WAN hype

As we transition to becoming ever more dependent upon the internet for large-scale migration to the cloud, traditional WANs have been used less. Typically, a Wide-Area-Network (WAN) linked users at a central location (this can include everything from a global brand to a university campus) to applications located on servers within a data centre.

An SD-WAN, however, utilises a centralised control function and software, usually Multiprotocol Label Switching (MPLS) and other internet services, to bring traffic across the WAN, increasing performance and business productivity. In certain cases, SD-WAN does work to reduce costs and streamline operational efficiency.

Decision-makers gain improved visibility across their network and understand data in real-time. With geographic boundaries being increasingly removed, SD-WAN can facilitate improved scalability and performance can grow. The network can enable users to upgrade simply, with few alterations needed for the infrastructure, while they can also use a mixture of network links without incurring any bandwidth penalties. Most crucially, the network provides improved security across the entire ecosystem with end-to-end encryption.

Considering the reality of SD-WAN

Networking was always going to move towards increased visibility and look to assist enterprises in learning how to use data more efficiently. Technology vendors have reaped the rewards from this, able to sell their solutions at high prices. However, the reality of these solutions are in fact the use of numerous common network technologies packaged together and rebranded with an aesthetically-pleasing graphical user interface (GUI) attached to the front.

Many of these common components are of PfR (Performance Routing), NBAR (Network-Based Application Recognition) or application awareness, object tracking, traditional Layer 3/4 Firewall, IP-SLA, and per-packet/session load-balancing.

The updated software-defined solution has automated these network technologies in order to enable businesses on the WAN to drive down their costs and increase efficiency. Since the solution relies heavily on the internet, customers often invest in SD-WAN technology and scrap their MPLS entirely. However, this is a very short-sighted decision and indicative of the way marketing hype of SD-WAN is causing businesses to make damaging decisions. Removing existing technologies like MPLS means businesses ditch their alternative connectivity means and, as the internet becomes increasingly fragile, this could have disastrous consequences.

Within the UK the cost argument isn’t necessarily valid due to the fact that we’re a small island with very good connectivity and the pricing for MPLS vs direct internet access is minima; it’s been seen to be only 2-5% more for MPLS, which doesn’t require the security appliances and other associated hardware to protect your network from the internet. However, in the US, where telcos have to overcome larger and more sparse geographical areas there’s a larger disparity between the cost of MPLS and internet. Therefore, utilising the internet makes sense from a cost perspective.

Overall, even if SD-WAN should prove a good solution for your business, or part of your business, it would be unable to run properly on the infrastructure the UK currently enjoys. Thus, abandoning MPLS completely is not advisable. It’s crucial that organisations understand the complete picture when concluding if SD-WAN is the correct approach or not, and bear in mind that marketing hype is deceiving decision-makers.

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Neil Briscoe is the CTO of Cloud Gateway, a hybrid cloud connectivity Platform-as-a-Service.


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