SD-WAN may provide the low cost, low maintenance branch office router solution that enterprises and service providers have long craved.
After a slow start involving a small number of limited availability trials, network services based on software defined wide area network (SD-WAN) platforms are now being fully commercialised and starting to arouse a lot of interest among enterprise buyers. SD-WAN services are now available to UK customers from several communications service providers (CSPs), with more likely to adopt the technology through the course of 2017.
Businesses have traditionally delivered multi-site WAN connections using either multi-protocol label switching (MPLS) virtual private networks (VPNs), leased lines or basic public internet connections available from consumer service providers. But while MPLS links and leased lines have been expensive and slow to provision, internet connections are rarely supported by service level agreements (SLAs) or quality of service (QoS) and are often disrupted by intermittent downtime which can hamper staff productivity, undermine commercial transactions and sour customer relations.
MPLS bandwidth is often regarded as prohibitively expensive and relatively inflexible for a lot of enterprises – research firm Gartner estimates that the average time to order, configure and switch on additional WAN bandwidth can be weeks or months, with costs often running into hundreds of pounds per megabit per second (Mbit/s) per month.
No surprise then that from the customer perspective, the biggest selling point of using SD-WAN platforms to deliver the same grade and speed of connectivity to multiple sites and branch offices tends to centre on reduced cost – the replacement of traditional, usually proprietary hardware-based routers or customer premise equipment (CPE) with software based equivalents or virtual network functions (VNFs) that can run either on standard ‘white box’ appliances and commercial ‘off the shelf’ x86 servers equipped with appropriate line cards or network interfaces.
Those flexible hardware options extend to support for multiple networking protocols. SD-WAN enabled routers can support multiple connection types – whether MPLS, digital subscriber line (DSL), fibre optic, cable or even third/fourth generation wireless (3G/4G) links – giving both customers and service providers a range of connectivity and bandwidth choices which can be optimised for specific locations based on availability, application performance requirements and budget constraints.
Opex can also be significantly reduced through simplified installation and management, with the deployment complexity reduced to levels typical of consumer broadband routers that do not require specialist engineers to install and set-up. Those attributes also make SD-WAN services fast and easy to provision and re-configure to deliver additional bandwidth, applications and services. Much of this can be done remotely and automatically by the service provider itself without having to arrange costly on-site engineer visits or manual configuration. And in some cases, end users themselves can self-provision additional bandwidth and services, providing them with a degree of control flexibility that may go a long way to cementing a long-term customer relationship.
For service providers, that support for additional virtual applications is also crucial to evolving their own SD-WAN service delivery models, a necessary transformation given the likely reduction in hardware sales, support and maintenance fees that a greater reliance on software-based appliances may entail.
Enhancing data security though the use of additional features and functionality such as virtual firewalls and web filtering for example, present ample scope to upsell SD-WAN service contracts to include SD-Security that can deliver recurring revenue over and above the standard monthly charges. That opportunity is likely to expand further in 2017 when the volume and diversity of cyber attacks being directed against public and private sector organisations is expected to grow. New European Union (EU) data protection legislation in the form of the general data protection regulation (GDPR) and the network information security (NIS) directive will also increase fines for breaches and loss of sensitive data from early 2018, and many companies are likely to make significant investments to their current cyber security systems and processes in preparation.
Elsewhere support for dynamic path selection enables load sharing across multiple WAN connections to improve performance. It also allows the service provider to develop alternative performance metrics which can be more closely tied to individual applications rather than purely network connectivity and bandwidth to suit individual customer requirements.
With any emergent technology, selecting the right partner to assist in its implementation can be problematic. A raft of hardware and software companies have introduced SD-WAN solutions in the past couple of years – everybody from established network hardware specialists to their challengers and start-ups.
Organisations face a wealth of choice and are likely to need extensive consultancy, systems integration and implementation assistance to avoid making costly mistakes which could undermine their ability to compete in a fast-changing market for network connectivity and security services.
Gartner has forecast that 30% of enterprises will have deployed SD-WAN technology by 2020, up from less than 1% in 2015, with spending on related hardware, software and services expanding to $1.24bn at compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of around 76%. IDC is even more bullish, estimating a 90% CAGR which will produce a $6bn SD-WAN industry by 2020.
Both of those analyst predictions would require a pretty fast rate of global take-up, something the networking industry has rarely, if ever, demonstrated in the past. But if CSPs and other service providers can effectively communicate what are very compelling benefits of SD-WAN technology to their customers, they might not be far off the mark.
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