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The reality of SD-WAN: making sense of the myths

Most enterprises have an increasing reliance on the cloud and data-hungry applications, meaning businesses with branch sites have never had such an urgent need for robust, reliable and optimised network estates. Without the right connectivity solutions, business performance will undoubtedly suffer, frustrating both customers and employees.

It’s little wonder, then, that there’s been such a buzz of conversation around Software-Define Networking in a Wide Area Network, or SD-WAN. SD-WAN is a relatively new technology that connects enterprise networks. And (if you were to listen to the more enthusiastic SD-WAN vendors), it’s also a solution that can solve any number of problems.

Security, cost savings, network optimisation, ease of deployment: from the way SD-WAN has been painted in certain circles, there are no ends to its capabilities. But does the reality live up to the hype?

What can SD-WAN achieve?

SD-WAN is one of the hottest topics in the industry at the moment. In simple terms, it’s a layer two technology which gives you the ability to effectively separate control planes, while intelligent, policy-based load sharing across multiple links can ensure that connectivity services run more efficiently. It should give you more visibility over your IT estate, as well as the ability to simplify WAN configuration and management. This makes it easier to deploy services at speed and scale.

Security could also be improved. For example, SD-WAN can help you to easily create granular security policies, along with VPNS and insert (or ‘service chain’) additional services, like firewalls and cloud proxies.

It could even help to boost cost efficiencies through time savings. In addition to a reduction in hardware costs, application trouble shooting and the delivery of services to branch sites should be significantly improved, meaning it takes less time to configure branch deployments. Support costs should also be lower over the long term, as problems can be resolved more quickly. Finally, SD-WAN can also provide an improved ability to see how bandwidth is being used, helping network managers optimise spend and thus reduce the cost per available megabyte.

What SD-WAN isn’t

However, the key words here are ‘could’ and ‘should’ – not will. Unfortunately, many vendors are discussing the benefits of SD-WAN in a very general way, and making some sweeping assumptions as they go. For example, SD-WAN isn’t an underlying network solution in and of itself. Many perceive it as a replacement for MPLS, when it’s actually a layer two technology.

In terms of specific benefits promised, some vendors have confidently made the blanket statement that SD-WAN will reduce costs and deliver significant savings. Consumers might therefore expect immediate savings when, in reality, it will likely take some time to see the efficiency benefit.

Likewise, while it can improve security in some senses, it isn’t as simple as ‘switching on SD-WAN’ and expecting to suddenly benefit from enhanced network protection. After implementing SD-WAN, networks managers will need to approach security differently. If you’re moving from a traditional MPLS security model, you’ll be opening your network at the edge.

That means you’ll have ‘more doors to lock and watch’, increasing the management burden. But as ever, it’s a nuanced situation. While you’ll have an increased management burden in terms of attack surface, requirements at the edge are typically less complex than in the data centre, so this could balance out.

Should your next WAN be an SD-WAN?

Making a decision about SD-WAN requires a lot of careful thought. For a start, you’ll need to consider whether you want a managed or DIY service; if you’re considering the latter, ensure that you have the resource capability to make this change. Meanwhile, with over 40 vendors offering this solution, there’s no clear-cut answer about the best provider.

And unfortunately, many have overhyped their capabilities, making bold market claims that won’t necessarily stand up for every business. Others use confusing language and make statements that are difficult to challenge if you’re not fully up to date with SD-WAN terminology. While striving for next generation connectivity is important, businesses ultimately need to ensure they’re investing in technologies that actually deliver the features they promise.

SD-WAN offers some exciting possibilities, and many enterprises will undoubtedly benefit from its capabilities in the year to come. But ultimately, the decision to invest should always depend on your individual requirements. Before making the leap, research carefully, seek guidance from an expert, and challenge any bold statements about what SD-WAN can deliver. In doing so, you can reap the benefits of this next-generation technology – without being swept up in the hype.

Hear more about how SD-WAN will prove to be a valuable addition to organisations from Gamma’s own expert, Alex Ayers in this article.