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The next big thing: On-Demand Wide Area Networking

Software Defined Wide Area Networking (SD-WAN) and 5G will trigger new dynamics in the carrier and networking market. The on-demand service concept is coming to the WAN. Users will love it; but, we are not there yet.

It’s part of the wider trend where everything in IT is becoming a service: EaaS. This trend started in the nineties with outsourcing and gained traction in the new century. Application Service Providing was an early attempt. And now, cloud in all its shapes and forms (IaaS, Paas, SaaS) is commonly adopted by consumers and enterprises alike.

The Service concept strongly depends on standardisation, automation, and digitalisation. As almost everything is getting digitized, everything can be managed by software – and it will. “Software rules the world”, as some visionaries say. Or: “Every company will become a software company”. And indeed, looking at infrastructure matters, software rules compute (we call it server virtualisation) and store. Datacenters and networks are in the process of becoming software defined. Now we are in the early stage of software defined wide area networks and connectivity. Enter SD-WAN.

SD-WAN is more the Software Defined Networking. It contains various technologies and solutions that are available already. The concept follows the trend we saw in commodity hardware: the decoupling of the hardware and the control plane. While SDN just handles networking, SD-WAN also takes the applications, the user, and the connections into account. SDN is designed to optimize the nodes and devices and to allocate predefined paths according to traffic and business rules. SD-WAN offers a more holistic view on communications, looking primarily to the applications and their needs. SD-WAN systems monitor the behaviour of the applications and dynamically allocate the optimal paths. The downside of the concept is that there is no standard (yet) – as the SD-WAN solution of one vendor differs from that of another.

3 characteristics of a successful SD-WAN deployment

1. Integration of cloud solutions, the network, and the datacentre. MS Express route, AWS Direct Connect, Equinix Cloud Exchange, AMS-IX MegaPort, and specific carrier offerings. They are all designed for offering control and end-to-end SLA in a cloud environment as the cloud providers themselves do not guarantee the quality of the connection to their services.

2. Delivery Optimization. SD-WAN manages the delivery of the content and the application to the user with the user experience in mind.

3. Dynamic allocation. SD-WAN uses various methods to optimize delivery and experience, such as WAN optimization, Caching, Protocol Optimization.


The thinking around SD-WAN is met with much enthusiasm – from both vendors and users. That’s because SD-WAN promises flexible, user-experience-driven ways of data communication. The WAN dynamically, and automatically, chooses the best path and protocol for delivering the Quality of Service the user of the application needs – per predefined business rules. The synchronisation of two datacenters then gets another treatment for the worker that wants to save an office document in the cloud. Whether it’s MPLS, IP or 4G – the WAN assesses what the best option is for that specific individual, using this specific application on that location, to deliver the optimal user experience.


“User experience will become key in networking”


User experience is key in the digital economy. In fact, the user experience is the major battlefield in the war for consumers. The ease of use and the performance are crucial for the adoption of innovation, even more than the sheer functionality. That development started in the consumer market. Technology vendors like Apple and Google are typically putting a lot of money and effort into delivering the best experience – as they’ve learned it affects the loyalty of their customers. To do this, they build state of art datacenters and networks to ensure the frictionless use of their products and services. Enterprises also need to continuously optimize their global network infrastructures to keep delivering the best experience and performance to their workforce and their customers. This is where SD-WAN comes to the rescue.

Perfect world

The benefits of SD-WAN are clear: the overall availability and quality of the network increases, making people and systems more productive. The operating costs also decrease significantly as the human factor becomes obsolete. Plus, the network manages itself – essentially making support engineers and network managers obsolete. The global network and all its components can be monitored and controlled from one point. And on top of that, DDoS attacks can be averted by choosing different paths or automatically shutting off parts of the network.


“Wifi and 5G together will be complementary”


SD-WAN will be a catalyst for genuine pay-as-you-go connectivity. Pay-for-use is one of the main characteristics of the service economy. But until now, enterprises created a network that in most cases are dimensioned for the highest load, after load balancing. Again, a one-size-fits-all approach will result in an over dimensioned network with over dimensioned costs associated. SD-WAN offers dynamic network capacity allocation, depending on the application and the costs. If a user is within WiFi reach, SD-WAN will automatically choose Wifi access; but, if he or she is mobile, 4G or 5G will be picked. The general adoption of 5G will boost the reach of SD-WAN as the connectivity challenge will be resolved. Wifi and 5G will be complementary in the hybrid network. That means carriers will need to accommodate this development and offer pay-for-use invoicing – forever changing the current static pricing models we have.

Today, the first signs of change in the payment models of the internet are already visible. The peer-to-peer exchanging of large content volumes (many-to-many) makes room for end-to-end delivery chains where providers seek control of the content distribution and of the user. Access providers want a larger piece of the cake that content providers such as Facebook and Google have created for themselves. It’s very possible that soon we could see consumers waking up and realizing they can get money for the content they post – and SD-WAN will support these developments for the access and networking elements.
Taking all these benefits into account, it is no wonder that carriers are embracing the concept, as it enables them to strengthen and expand their one-stop-shop approach. At first sight, the single vendor one-stop-shop approach is attractive enough for the enterprise. But, in Wide Area Networking and connectivity, we must deal with the grim, everyday reality.

Illegitimate connections

Two factors obstruct the overall implementation of SD-WAN: legacy enterprise applications and previous generation connectivity. When it comes to legacy enterprises, about 20% of the enterprise application landscape consists of these legacy software and systems. Think of core banking systems or operating and control systems for manufacturing. At the current state it is simply not possible, or desirable, to virtualize these systems and put them in the cloud or bring them under Internet Protocol. Much of these systems even have no WAN-connectivity at all. So how could you elevate them to SD-WAN level?


“SD-WAN has little value in Third World environments”


Connectivity is another issue. Working and living in the first world business environment, most of us are spoiled with omnipresent high-speed, great bandwidth, high-performance networks. That distorts our image of reality. In our connectivity bubble 4G, Wifi and easy internet access are available everywhere. But in other parts of the world things are not ‘always-on’. In remote rural areas, at sea, in the heart of the jungle or even in the third world metropolis, quality connectivity is scarce and expensive. So, how could you implement company-wide SD-WAN when remote offices rely on thin, unstable connections? When the network runs on illegitimate lines? Remember that less than 1/3 of the world population has a mobile phone. And, less than 50% have internet access. The areas are also just as much a part of the global economy, with many enterprises doing business in these less connected regions. Think: energy companies exploring remote locations for gas or oil, mining companies deep in the jungle, and retailers in slums.

Level playing field

These two factors stand in the way of the all-out SD-WAN approach that global carriers propagate. One-size-fits-all does not fit the granular network needs of most global enterprises. Specific applications and locations will not, and cannot, comply with a SD-WAN regime. So, if you go for an SD-WAN only approach, you may be disappointed. Now is the time to better prepare for a hybrid environment – with SD-WAN handling the core infrastructure, and more traditional networking technologies taking care of the edge and the legacy. This approach will last just a few years. 5G, with its unparalleled transmission speed, bandwidth, and availability, will probably push out traditional standards and protocols. Also, the relatively low costs of 5G deployment will give a boost to adoption in third world regions. That will create a level playing field for everyone. Until then, we must deal with the everyday reality.

How to cope with SD-WAN?

‘Keep calm and carry on’, in this scenario, also good advice. As an IT Manager, do not follow this trend, and all its derivatives, blindly. Look at your business and its requirements, and map your strategy to your communication needs for now and in the near future. See what you already have in place. Assess your business critical apps and their network needs. When that picture is clear, you have all the ingredients for a balanced SD-WAN strategy. Deploy only if, when, and where it adds value to the network. Develop a roadmap for the implementation and stay flexible as the developments in technology and vendor landscape keep accelerating. And then: off you go….


Rutger Bevaart, CTO and Lead Architect, Custom Connect

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