Transforming the network: SD-WAN and SASE

Four or five years ago, the conversation around software-defined WANs was about saving money and getting a return on your investment. Now that’s at the bottom of the list, according to EMA’s latest research into WAN transformation, SD-WAN and SASE during the pandemic.

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SD-WAN transformation during COVID

While WAN transformation was already taking place prior to the pandemic, it’s been accelerated over the latter half of 2020 as we adjust to the new normal.

Software-defined wide-area networking (SD-WAN) is taking digital enterprises to the next level, but we’re now on the cusp of a “secure Zero Trust networking future with secure access service edge (SASE), which unifies SD-WAN, secure remote access and cloud-based security,” according to industry analyst and consulting firm Enterprise Management Associates (EMA).

During a webinar outlining the third installment of its ongoing biennial research into WAN transformation — based on a survey of 303 enterprise IT professionals — EMA examined how the pandemic has affected (and accelerated) WAN transformation.

The rise of hybrid WANs

“At this point, everyone we surveyed is hybridizing their WAN,” said Shamus McGillicuddy, who leads the network management practice at EMA, during the webinar. Indeed, 99 per cent of enterprise IT professionals who took part in the survey said they’re adding or planning to add Internet to their WAN architecture.

Driving this is a desire for network flexibility, as well as a need to meet growing bandwidth requirements for work-from-home. But that doesn’t necessarily mean companies are ditching their MPLS footprint.

More than half of respondents said there would be no change to their MPLS footprint (rather, they were looking to supplement what they already have), while 23 per cent are reducing it. “But the majority of companies really look at hybrid as a way to improve [their] overall network — not to reduce MPLS, not to save money on MPLS, but to really just improve the network,” said McGillicuddy.

Security drives SD-WAN deployment


Four or five years ago, the conversation around SD-WAN was about saving money and ROI. Now that’s at the bottom of the list.

“It’s now imperative that they improve security when they adopt SD-WAN, which wasn’t even really part of the conversation when SD-WAN solutions first hit the market,” said McGillicuddy. Security is now a differentiator — not a check mark on an SD-WAN wish list.

Enterprise IT professionals also want to improve their visibility into the network, he said, which makes sense given the need to improve application quality-of-service for remote workers, “making sure that those real-time applications like voice and video conferencing are all getting priority over things like YouTube.”

SD-WAN solutions almost universally offer native monitoring capabilities. But 93 per cent of respondents said their original network management toolset was not sufficient to manage a hybrid WAN; nearly half of respondents said they needed to acquire new tools, and another half said they needed to modify existing tools to get the visibility and workflows they required.

From DIY to managed services

There’s also been a strong shift over the past two years toward managed SD-WAN services; 62 per cent of enterprises want to consume SD-WAN as a managed service, while only 12 per cent prefer the do-it-yourself approach.

“So there’s been this major acknowledgement in the industry that enterprises should shift away from DIY and rely on the expertise of their providers,” said McGillicuddy.

EMA also asked enterprise IT professionals how the pandemic has affected the timing of their WAN transformation projects. Sixty per cent of respondents said it has accelerated their timelines, while 59 per cent said it has expanded the scope of their projects — due to urgent requirements such as secure connectivity, network optimization and the rapid and simple provisioning of temporary sites.

As a result, enterprises are researching and, in some cases, piloting SASE. Fifty-one per cent of respondents said the pandemic has accelerated their SASE engagement, while 82 per cent said that SASE supports business continuity, primarily through the ability to deliver secure remote connectivity and cloud-delivered security.

Read more:

Why SD-WAN could be the antidote for WFH woes
SASE and the future of enterprise networking
How SD-Internet can boost business connectivity

After the pandemic

While it’s likely that at some point in the latter half of 2021 workers will start returning to the office, half of respondents expect their WFH population to remain elevated even after the pandemic is over. So MPLS isn’t going away, but the connectivity game is changing.

“Your MPLS connections are kind of like the bones of your network — probably those are going to be serving specific business purposes in the future. But your need for performance for cloud access, for flexibility, is going to drive a surge in Internet connectivity,” said McGillicuddy.

“You’re probably going to keep your MPLS but you’re going to need a hybrid network with a lot of Internet connectivity and that’s going to drive operational change. You’re going to have to re-evaluate your toolsets that you use for network operations and figure out how that’s going to impact the way you monitor and troubleshoot your network.”

The home office is now the WAN edge — and that will drive infrastructure and operational change.

Images: traffic_analyzer/iStock; OstapenkoOlena/iStock

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