As more traffic moves out of the data center, software-defined wide area networks (SD-WANs) have the potential to help organizations curb rising network costs. But few IT departments have experience managing this emerging technology.
“Enterprises are searching for ways to monitor their entire network, from the data centers to the WAN, in a more consistent fashion,” said Joe Skorupa, vice president at Gartner.
Consolidating those functions into a single device with SD-WAN can offer many advantages to organizations.
Public cloud adoption creates inflection point
Revenue from public cloud services was expected to increase 18%, from $209.2 billion in 2016 to $246.8 billion in 2017, according to Gartner. These services offer flexibility because businesses can off load data center management completely with public cloud or move certain functions off site with hybrid cloud.
Public cloud adoption dramatically changes enterprise network traffic flows, however. Traditionally, data traffic moved largely within the data center. For instance, high-speed connections took information from servers and wrote it to storage systems. With public cloud, such tasks move off site. Rather than travelling tens or hundreds of feet in a data center, they travel tens or hundreds of miles over the WAN.
Consequently, firms need to install or upgrade high-bandwidth communications services. Multiprotocol Label Switching (MPLS) is quite popular, but internet-based options, which are less expensive but do not offer as much reliability, have also gained traction. An MPLS line is a dedicated circuit, but on the internet, bandwidth is given on a first-come, first-served basis. If too many businesses need to move information, some have to wait until others’ transmissions are finished.
SD-WAN benefits and pitfalls
Enterprise network equipment often consists of a complex set of autonomous devices: routers, WAN path controllers, WAN optimizers, firewalls and other security tools. These typically operate in a stand-alone fashion, so they can be expensive to buy and difficult to manage.
In the past, configuring and changing network devices required a lot of manual input. In many cases, firms needed on-site technicians to keep the network equipment humming at remote locations. Of the many SD-WAN benefits, the biggest are that the technology is built on modern computing foundations and that it offers simpler maintenance and more efficiency than traditional network devices.
Another plus is its ability to support multiple types of connections. Organizations have a variety of WAN services — MPLS, broadband and wireless, for example. SD-WANs provide a common interface to manage all of those services and run them all on one line. If one of the connections experiences an overload, SD-WANs can take unused capacity from another link and use it to fill the void temporarily.
Despite these SD-WAN benefits, the technology faces some roadblocks and presents IT departments with challenges. Downtime is anathema in business today, so network engineers have traditionally been averse to making dramatic changes, such as deploying new WAN equipment.
Also, SD-WAN functions differently than traditional network devices, so there’s a learning curve. And the consolidation of many different network devices makes pinpointing the root cause of a network problem challenging.
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