As director of sales engineering for CenturyLink, I was recently invited to be a guest on “On the Air,” a webinar hosted by Spiceworks focused on network management and how modern intelligence can help you manage your WAN like a master. I was joined by Erik Antoniuk, a network engineer for Hub Computer Solutions in Winnipeg, Canada, who has a major client in the hospitality industry.
Erik described a challenge: his client was having trouble getting sufficient visibility into the traffic patterns of their VPLS. His client’s network had to deal with everything from spikes in reservations and vast quantities of email, to guests requesting use of the firm’s unpredictable 250 MB bandwidth for a 1,000-person videoconference. The company needed to understand its business’ traffic patterns so it could redirect some of its traffic to Internet or other connections that could supplement the need for additional bandwidth.
I’d say this is a very common business problem. We see a lot of customer frustration around their increasing bandwidth requirements, which can result in performance problems.
For example, think about legacy architecture in a company that has over a hundred branch offices. This company uses an MPLS network to send its Internet traffic out of its data center. If it wants to apply a security policy at the data center, every branch has to send traffic to that data center to gain access to the Internet. If one branch uses the public cloud, its branch traffic has to come through the network, go through the data center, out through an Internet connection and back to the public cloud, which may very well be right next to where the branch is located.
Obviously, that architecture really limits application performance, particularly for latency-sensitive packets like voice and video, and causes bottlenecks within the data center. For those reasons and more, we’ve seen SD-WAN become a very popular solution.
SD-WAN: A Step Forward for WANs
A software-defined wide area network (SD-WAN) is software-defined networking (SDN) technology applied to WAN connections. WANs typically connect enterprise locations spanning local, regional, national and global geographic areas – for example, data centers located in different states, or branch offices scattered around the country – to allow information to be shared across a maze of access points and network connections. Connecting all of these diverse locations and users to a common WAN with maximized visibility and control has required sacrificing one or the other due to the complexity and expense of management. SD-WAN provided an answer.
SD-WAN is a software-based network that operates on top of legacy networks to deliver a mix of any-to-any connectivity, policy shaping, device control and security, all managed from a single, intuitive control-center orchestration panel. Many SD-WAN solutions bridge legacy networks, bringing all of their bandwidth and unique advantages to bear on the optimum performance of business applications. As a result, SD-WANs are much more flexible than legacy WAN technologies such as MPLS.
Deploy SD-WAN – And Breathe Easier
First and foremost, SD-WAN makes your life easier – especially if you have a large network footprint. For instance, say you had 1,000 sites and had to make configuration changes across all of them. In the past, that would be a hefty task, with logging on to individual routers to make changes to each site. With SD-WAN, you would simply make a change in a template, and push it out to the sites simultaneously. You then have the ability to separate the control plane from the data plane, push policy out through the control plane, then down to the sites through a portal.
This portal provides clear visibility to your network. You understand how the underlying network is performing, what applications are being used, and by who.
Then there’s agility. We’ve become spoiled with how easy it is to deploy new applications in the cloud. But what about the network? Before features such as Zero Touch Provisioning, network deployments were viewed as a roadblock to overall IT nimbleness.
Flexibility is also key. This question came from an audience member: Is SD-WAN a hardware-limited technology? Absolutely not – the secret sauce in SD-WAN is software!
For many SD-WAN technologies, you get a box from your provider that is pre-configured for your network and locations. Installation is a snap once it arrives. And virtually everything else about the deployment is software-based. Consumers can choose to use the hardware we deploy in our managed service offering, or they can put it on their own stack. They could also put it in the Cloud. At CenturyLink, our standard deployment is based on x86 hardware at the customer site.
Because SD-WANs can be controlled through cloud software, enterprises can remotely manage hundreds or thousands of sites through a centralized interface, greatly simplifying how networks are operated.
From my perspective, the best thing about SD-WAN is that it’s an overlay that allows you to use the right kind of transport for your business applications. For instance, we may have a task like VoIP that needs a dedicated network, while another task may be just fine with best-effort quality, so I might prioritize these tasks and push something like Web browsing out of the branches to the Internet. SD-WAN gives you the technology to take advantage of those different transport mechanisms in the easiest way possible.
After hearing these benefits, a viewer asked whether smaller firms should use SD-WAN. The answer is: it depends on your situation. If you’re in a highly regulated industry like finance or healthcare, the arrow certainly points to “yes.” A lot of the embedded security functionality included in some SD-WAN technologies might resonate for such companies.
If you look at how SD-WAN technologies work, there are a lot of different encryption algorithms and techniques applied to how the traffic is transported. You typically have the ability to increase the security of certain traffic flows that are passing on your network. So SD-WAN isn’t just necessarily something that is only good for very large enterprises. If you think about it, SD-WAN gives smaller companies an easier entry into deploying a more robust security profile. Especially if your solution includes embedded SD-Security functions. In fact, many of the deals we’re signing right now for SD-WAN are in the small-company sweet spot.
Is SD-WAN Headed for Obsolescence?
One of the participants in the webinar asked a great question: Since everything is shifting to the cloud and SaaS anyway, won’t SD-WAN eventually become obsolete?
I see SD-WAN as a necessary component of the evolution to the cloud. If you think about what SD-WAN does, it’s helping you boost the performance of applications going toward that cloud. Yes, everybody’s moving towards SaaS and cloud-based applications. You may want to put an SD-WAN end point in the third-party cloud to give you end to end visibility. Or, in the case of web-based SaaS services, you may simply want to use traditional Internet at the site, and provide security policies so that you’re protected against public Internet traffic. In my opinion, SD-WAN and the cloud are very much complementary to each other.
I envision that SD-WAN technology is eventually going to be adopted by almost everyone. There will obviously be multiple vendors and slight differences in the technology, but I feel very strongly that it’s going to be the end point for all networks – just you wait and see.
You can watch a full recording of the event here.