23 September 2020
The software defined wide area networking (SD-WAN) industry is learning a thing or two from one of the most neutral and independent nations in the world.
The last few years’ have seen a shift in how we consume Information and Communications Technology. The move has been away from monolithic mainframes in enterprise owned datacentres and towards virtualised, scalable IT delivered from the cloud or through SaaS.
Combined with the vast amount of data that business and consumers both generate, the IT direction of travel has been focused on extending connectivity – both fixed and mobile – with as much performance and bandwidth as possible, and with a very keen eye on security.
When it comes to the WAN, although 20 years old, MPLS is still the preferred choice for many large enterprises. These leased circuits offer predictable and reliable IP transport. However, MPLS circuits that range between $200 to $500 per MB, per month – and more in certain locations - although dropping in cost in recent years’; are still an order of magnitude more expensive than Business Internet services delivered over widespread DSL technologies that have emerged over the last decade.
In an ideal world, enterprises would prefer to move away from MPLS to gain cost savings – or at least supplement these expensive core circuits with lower cost DSL or even mobile 5G technologies without the perceived risk around reliability. The answer for many organisations is the move to SD-WAN, a technology that according to Gartner’s definition “…provides dynamic, policy-based, application path selection across multiple WAN connections and supports service chaining for additional services such as WAN optimisation and firewalls.”
Same destination, different path
Yet SD-WAN is not an industry standard like BGP or ATM, or even Frame Relay, as it’s not a new protocol but instead a new way of approaching the problem. Each vendor’s technology works in a slightly different way, and herein lies the rub. Without arguing over which vendor is better or worse in terms of SD-WAN functionality, key suppliers from the traditional networking ethos require that enterprises using their SD-WAN solution must replace switches and routers with newer models, often as a result of the software upgrades that are necessary to support this new way of working. Even other less prescriptive solutions require extensive reconfiguration of networks but still fail to deliver the granular levels of application control that is one of the essential benefits of SD-WAN.
This is a major issue for very large enterprises with widely distributed sites and disparate functions that tend to have complicated network architectures. Due to organic growth, acquisition and staggered projects, few large networks have the same vendor throughout the entire infrastructure.
As such, SD-WAN projects that use this legacy approach can have roll-outs that last months. Worse still, for 24/7 enterprises that simply can’t accept any WAN downtime – this means complicated workarounds are deployed to build parallel networks while SD-WAN is implemented. Invariably, many fail to grasp the opportunity to re-architect their communication workflows, and instead SD-WAN ends up being just a slight incremental improvement rather than a sea change.
In the last year, a new type of SD-WAN technology has emerged that is referred to as ‘hybrid’, ‘transparent’ or even ‘overlay’. These types of SD-WANs do not require the replacement of perfectly good switches and routers and instead work in parallel with existing network elements but without requiring their reconfiguration.
At a technical level, this Transparent Hybrid WAN technology manipulates existing protocol stacks to virtualise the estate to focus on how data flows across the WAN. The technique is relatively new and Infovista and have now deployed the first set of enterprise clients using this technique that typically reduced the implementation time of SD-WAN from multi-month projects to potential weeks.
This neutrality is analogous with Switzerland, because through this transparent approach, the SD-WAN does not get involved with defining what the underlying switching or routing vendor needs to be – or even configuration changes. In essence, the current WAN architecture is blissfully unaware that SD-WAN has been deployed in a supplemental way where the whole process is abstracted into its self-contained management layer.
For larger enterprises with a huge, sprawling WAN, this is a real technical innovation and will likely lead to faster adoption. Yet the ability to build standards-based SD-WAN that unify multiple vendors is still a challenge. However, this is also starting to change as the industry begins to gain independent certification through organisation like Metro Ethernet Forum (MEF), a non-profit international industry consortium with over 200 members that have just issued its first industry backed SD-WAN standard in the form of the MEF 3.0 SD-WAN certification test.
Although not an instant fix for building out homogenous and highly interoperable SD-WAN architecture, the move towards having a baseline of capabilities will make it easier for enterprises and service providers to select SD-WAN technologies based on more than just marketing messages and vague promises.
Analyst data forecasts that the global SD-WAN market size is expected to grow from USD 1.0 billion in 2018 to USD 4.1 billion by 2023, a staggeringly high CAGR of 32.7%. This suggests that with more demand for cloud and SaaS, the use of SD-WAN will rapidly shift from innovative to commonplace within a decade. Making it as easy to deploy and neutral as possible will be a major win for the networking industry and customers alike.
By Adrian Brookes, solutions strategy and pre-sales director, Infovista