Connecting directly to the cloud makes SD-WAN attractive to enterprises

January 20th, 2020 | by Alfred Siew
Connecting directly to the cloud makes SD-WAN attractive to enterprises
PHOTO: Bruno /Germany from Pixabay

Like taking the first step to the cloud, one of the first things that many enterprises hear today about SD-WAN or software-defined wide-area networks is the cost benefits it promises.

Years in the making, the technology has in recent times made headway with enterprises that are looking to lower the costs of using traditional technologies such as MPLS (multi-protocol label switching). However, it can deliver a lot more.

As an “overlay” for networks connecting various branch offices, SD-WAN promises to bring in a lot more “intelligence” by enabling users to, say, load-balance the traffic to support certain apps or remotely troubleshoot issues at each location.

A retailer with multiple outlets won’t need its IT team to head down to each site to troubleshoot issues with its Wi-Fi or Internet-connected point-of-sales systems. A centralised console gives it control over these devices.

More significantly, SD-WAN brings a new way of connecting, instead of being a straight replacement for, say, an MPLS link or even a leased line from the past. This has a lot do with the way end users connect to the apps they need today.

Unlike the past, these apps are often hosted on public cloud services, such as Microsoft Azure, Amazon Web Services or Google Cloud instead of a corporate data centre. That means the old “hub-and-spoke” model of MPLS will find it hard to offer a good user experience.

In this old way of connecting, a user at an office (a spoke) will often have to connect to a data centre (a hub) before reaching the public cloud services, say, to run Microsoft Office 365. Often, this results in a poor, laggy experience due to the high latency.

Yes, you can run SD-WAN over this MPLS network topology, but the results are often not ideal. Instead, this Internet breakout now comes at the branch office itself, which uses SD-WAN over broadband links such as xDSL or fibre to reach the public cloud services directly.

The result, according to SD-WAN vendor Silver Peak, is a much improved experience for a wide range of cloud-based apps and services. Late last year, the company also started providing application programming interfaces (APIs) that enabled its customers to easily connect to Azure and AWS.

This meant they don’t have to re-configure so many settings when they hook up to the two most popular public cloud services, explained Dean Vaughan, Silver Peak’s vice-president for Asia-Pacific and Japan.

Indeed, many customers have come to see the ease of use and improved user experience as the main reasons for adopting SD-WAN, despite initially considering only lower costs, he told Techgoondu in an interview last week.

To be sure, SD-WAN has not always been easy to use. The need for additional equipment, say, a firewall, to protect the Internet links connecting to each branch office meant additional setup and maintenance, which the technology had promised to reduce.

However, improvements in recent years have often made these features part of an integrated SD-WAN solution, so they are more easily set up by IT departments.

SD-WAN is expected to see fast adoption in the next few years. This segment of the enterprise networking market will grow at a compound annual growth rate of 30.8 per cent from 2018 to 2023, to reach US$5.25 billion, according to IDC.

The research firm sees the technology’s support for SaaS (Software-as-a-Service) and hybrid-cloud usage as a main driver. Plus, the easier management of multiple connection types and improved user experience are also key.

Rohit Mehra, IDC’s vice-president for network infrastructure said that the technology can now provide dynamic management of hybrid WAN connections and high levels of quality of service on a per-application basis.

Telecom operators, which still enjoy generous margins from traditional MPLS and leased line services, are also in the game today. StarHub and Singtel both offer SD-WAN services in Singapore.

There are, of course, challenges to any new technology. While MPLS provides a private network that is secure within its confines, SD-WAN often relies on public Internet links. Yes, the data is encrypted but there is still a perception that this incurs additional risk.

Plus, SD-WAN being a centrally managed or controlled offering, also carries a risk of outage if that Internet-based controller is out of action, or not correctly controlled or configured.

However, if that is done well, the technology will brings new benefits that are now just beginning to be clear to many enterprises, say its proponents.

For example, through machine learning, it can be programmed to detect which link among several links is optimal, so that there is no human intervention involved to switch over when faced with increased traffic, said Silver Peak’s Vaughan.

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