How SD-WANs are transforming branch connectivity

While the Internet isn’t replacing MPLS, software-defined WANs are proving to be a complementary approach for network connectivity and control, particularly in distributed organizations with remote sites and branch offices.


The start of a new year brings a renewed focus on business strategies and IT priorities for the year ahead. And WANs are high on the agenda.

Thanks to ongoing digital transformation initiatives, networks have a need for speed — and a lot more bandwidth (plus better performance, security and management).

While the Internet isn’t replacing MPLS, software-defined WANs (SD-WANs) are proving to be a complementary approach for network connectivity and control, particularly in organizations with remote sites and branch offices.

DX drives SD-WAN

WANs are transforming for a number of reasons, from security and hybrid cloud to IoT, SaaS migration and IaaS migration, according to a report from IT analyst firm Enterprise Management Associates (EMA). Based on a survey of 305 enterprise decision-makers in North America and Europe, the report is focused on distributed enterprises with at least 30 remote sites or branch offices.

From a business trend perspective, however, it’s about business growth and digital transformation, said EMA Research Director Shamus McGillicuddy, during a webinar that explores the results of this research. “Innovation is the story,” he said. “Less significant is cost reduction and optimization, although it’s still secondary.”

Branch office challenges

SD-WANs are an option for tackling branch office challenges; a whopping 79 per cent of respondents reported endpoint growth as a factor in their decision to move toward SD-WAN, though improving security was also a major factor (58 per cent cited a security breach traceable to a branch office in the past year).

This, coupled with WAN requirements for more bandwidth, is driving the charge toward SD-WAN. More bandwidth is needed by most respondents (92 per cent) for everything from cloud business applications to data collection for real-time analytics.

But, “cloud demands more than bandwidth,” said McGillicuddy. “It also needs performance and it’s going to require some architectural changes in a lot of enterprises.”

Proceed with caution

Direct-to-cloud is a top priority, particularly for business-critical applications. More than half of respondents (56 per cent) prefer to connect remote sites directly to cloud as opposed to backhauling traffic through a data centre or third-party point of presence.

“They can’t afford to be backhauling all that traffic — especially if they’re backhauling it over the MPLS network, which is already bandwidth-constrained — and adding all that latency to it,” said McGillicuddy.

Design your SD-WAN carefully, he said, adding that SD-WAN users report higher rates of IT service issues at branch offices. “Think about how your SD-WAN solution is going to provide an optimized connection into your public cloud, but also make sure you’re going to get good visibility so when you do have a service issue you can get to the root cause quickly.”

The middle mile conundrum

Also consider that SD-WANs optimize first and last mile connectivity, but most don’t optimize paths on the Internet backbone — so you’ll have to address the middle mile.

Otherwise, “performance on a global level can be an issue for cloud applications or data centre interconnects,” said McGillicuddy. Some respondents are seeking out help, turning to a vendor or working with a managed service provider or middle-mile specialist.

Moving forward

What’s clear from the research, however, is that most respondents understand the business value of SD-WAN.

Indeed, those with fully deployed SD-WANs are “really gung-ho,” said McGillicuddy. And while that enthusiasm drops for those who are only partially deployed or in the research phase, “people are feeling more successful once they start getting more experience with this technology — it works.”

Image: Wenjie Dong/iStock

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