SD-WAN: What it is and why it’s so important to the enterprise

In the new age of cloud computing, everyone wants software-defined resources that can be scaled up or down or configured on a need basis. Software-defined storage, software-defined security, and software-defined networking are all the need of the hour. In fact, the software-defined wide-area network (SD-WAN) is so important that the Open Networking User Group (ONUG) has listed it as its top priority after orchestration in the bid to create a Hybrid Cloud Framework. Route discovery and distribution are one of the biggest problems while extending on-premises infrastructure to the cloud, and enterprises have been known to waste weeks and months discovering routes. SD-WAN brings a much-needed consistency in route discovery and distribution via cloud connect or connectivity services to multiple cloud providers.

A technology you can buy

SD-WAN is a specific application of software-defined networking (SDN) technology applied to WAN connections and can be thought of as another version of software-defined networking. While they’re both software-defined, “SDN is an architecture, whereas SD-WAN is a technology you can buy,” explains Gartner analyst Andrew Lerner.

Managing WAN through software has the added advantage of using a single interface as opposed to manual configurations and the possible requirement of on-site technicians. Additionally, the ability to use commodity routers along with staffing and a small decrease in router maintenance and support make it about 2.5 times cheaper than normal WAN networks while ease of deployment, central manageability, and reduced costs make SD-WAN an attractive option for businesses.

Down-market networking


If SD-WAN is so great, why isn’t it more common? Apart from the fact that networking engineers are averse to dramatic changes, it’s not like big enterprises are going to switch over from their MPLS links for an SD-WAN setup.

According to AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson, however, it’s not the big fish they’re after. In a recent earnings conference call, Stephenson said, “On the SD-WAN, yeah, it’s real. It tends to be real down-market…and you should assume that we’re developing the capability ourselves, because it’s a viable offer down-market. We’re seeing some effect from it. It’s not material yet, but we think it’s a legitimate capability. We need to be there; we need to have it. And so up-market, the traditional VPN capability is always, we think, is going to be the enduring capability. But down-market, we’re going to have to be prepared to compete with this kind of offering.”

To put the above in context, AT&T will be leveraging an existing partnership with VeloCloud to build two types of SD-WAN: a network-based system and an on-premises-based system. A network-based system could build off a customer’s existing MPLS connections. With the on-premises-based system, customers don’t necessarily need an AT&T MPLS connection. They can use SD-WAN to manage their various wired and wireless Internet connections from third parties.

Cheap thrills

Though this move targets a “down market,” Stephenson is referring to small and medium-sized enterprise customers who are demanding more flexible, open, and cloud-based technologies to replace expensive, fixed circuits, or proprietary hardware. SD-WAN does just that by provisioning connectivity and services via the cloud and gives a customer the added ability to scale up or “burst” connectivity during times of peak demand. Many feel this “down market” is worth billions of dollars.

Another reason it’s so popular is many of the new SD-WAN offerings can also be used to improve and secure Internet connectivity, making it more competitive with more expensive legacy WAN technologies such as T-1 or MPLS. This is what makes SD-WAN also a very lucrative “down-market” option, especially since it works on regular broadband connection and you could have two or more connections from different providers.

A billion-dollar landscape

Since SD-WAN technology delivers a secure, simple cloud-enabled WAN connection with as much open and software-based technology as possible, it’s also been attracting users from telecom operators and service providers of various sizes as well as enterprises looking to take more control over their networking needs.

Many startups are going after the potential in this SD-WAN market, which is likely in the billions of dollars. Many of these startups have different approaches to the market, which can more or less be broken down into three segments: incumbent networking vendors who are rolling out SD-WAN products like Cisco, Dell or HPE ; WAN specialists who extend their products to include SD-WAN (Silver Peak, Talari Networks); and then pure-play SD-WAN startups (VeloCloud, CloudGenix, Ocedo, and Viptela). For example, Silver Peak has focused on accelerating Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) applications in the cloud, Pertino and VeloCloud are going after branch-office connectivity using SD-WAN, and Aryaka has built a global network so that companies can use WAN as a Network-as-a-Service (NaaS).

Everyone wants a piece of the action

Cisco recently acquired Viptela, a provider of SD-WAN technology, for $610 million, which is supposed to give Cisco more muscle in terms of network deployments in an app-heavy, IoT cloud landscape. The big plan here is to combine Viptela’s cloud-first network management, orchestration, and overlay technologies with its own routing platforms and services like intelligent WAN and Meraki SD-WAN Solutions.

Masergy just rolled out a managed service for SD-WAN called SD-WAN Go, which extends Masergy’s software-defined platform. Masergy already has an SD-WAN solution, but the company says the new offering helps customers meet requirements for price and connectivity. Masergy also says the new solution differs from that of other vendors as they’re not proprietary and a lot more flexible than the competition.

“Adopting SD-WAN Go is like moving from a paper map to Google Maps. We give users real-time visibility into their WANs,” Masergy CEO Chris MacFarland said. “SD-WAN Go lets businesses rapidly and securely add locations and introduce network intelligence to meet their application performance needs.

Masergy is adding a new option to its SD-WAN service, making it easier for customers who want to keep their MPLS connections for most enterprise services to also dump other traffic to the public Internet locally.

Another interesting SD-WAN development is Windstream’s acquisition of EarthLink to present its business customers with a unified SD-WAN product set across all of its markets. CEO Tony Thomas told investors during the J.P. Morgan Global Technology, Media, and Telecom Conference 2017 that since EarthLink was already ahead of its own SD-WAN development, the acquisition gave their own technology a considerable boost.

Software defined: The future of networking

What started as a solution for branch-office and datacenters is quickly spreading to all sectors of the enterprise due to its ease of use and lack of expensive proprietary equipment. All in all, more than $360 million has been invested in SD-WAN startups, according to Rayno Report research, and the big guns like Cisco and HP are investing even more. IDC last year forecast the SD-WAN space to reach $6 billion in technology and service sales by 2020, with a compound annual growth rate of more than 90 percent over the next five years.

Adoption of SD-WAN has already reached an inflection point, and nearly every distributed business is deploying, evaluating, or planning SD-WAN as part of their IT strategy. With everyone rushing to get their SD-WAN together, expect a lot of enterprises to shift to software-defined networks in the very near future.

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