Beyond the hype: The reality of SD-WAN for businesses

Written by Martin Saunders

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    The SD-WAN market is projected to grow at a CAGR of 34% through 2021. That growth is based on the possible benefits offered to enterprises. A recent survey found that businesses believe SD-WAN technology will improve security, make them more agile, optimise bandwidth performance and increase the speed of cloud-based applications.1 But, are those benefits of SD-WAN real or just hype?

    The benefits of SD-WAN depend on the business. That’s why it’s crucial for organisations to evaluate their existing infrastructure to determine if business SD-WAN is right for their environment. Here are a few tips on what to consider when performing that evaluation.

    Tip 1: Do your research! 

    Research starts with the enterprise. If organisations do not have clear requirements, they can commit to a solution that does not meet their basic needs. Companies should analyse the following:

    • What is the existing infrastructure?
    • What are application performance requirements?
    • Is the IT department understaffed?
    • What problems are trying to be solved?
    • Can the problems be solved without using SD-WAN?

    Before looking at an SD-WAN solution, enterprises need to document their requirements to use as a checklist for establishing evaluation criteria. Without a list, it’s easy to lose sight of what is essential when evaluating multiple vendors.

    Tip 2: Compare Managed vs. Self-Managed 

    Software-defined wide-area networks can be managed in-house or through a third-party provider. Enterprises that opt for in-house or self-managed solutions typically have large networks with sufficient internal resources to deploy, configure and monitor an SD-WAN. Their personnel have the expertise needed to maintain the hardware, connectivity and software.

    Fully managed SD-WANs provide organisations with a solution capable of managing multiple network connections, security, and application performance. The SD-WAN service providers can reduce the time to implement a solution and minimise ongoing operational needs. A business doesn’t have to worry about maintaining system hardware or software, placing less strain on an overwhelmed IT department.

    Benefits of Managed SD-WAN

    Fully managed SD-WAN services offer their clients the following benefits:

    1. Expertise: A provider has the technical expertise to deliver and maintain an SD-WAN solution. Given the shortage of IT personnel, hiring knowledgeable employees may be almost impossible.
    2. Cost: Although a percentage of organisations may realise connectivity savings, most institutions will experience lower equipment and labor costs. A managed provider can also help with cash flow as most charge a standard monthly fee.
    3. Equipment: Managed solutions are responsible for all equipment acquisition and maintenance. The necessary equipment is supplied, installed and maintained.
    4. Integration: Managed SD-WAN providers offer centralised control over an SD-WAN through consolidated view of the network, including all connectivity.
    5. Cloud: Once virtualised, moving network connections to the cloud becomes less challenging, enabling a faster way to digital transformation.

    Managed software-defined networks still require companies to configure network paths and routers. Security may be a shared responsibility. Before deciding on a managed provider, look at the SLA and resolve any ambiguities. Just because a supplier offers a fast-to-market solution doesn’t mean it is the best solution for the life of an SLA.

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    Benefits of Self-Managed SD-WAN

    Depending on the organisation, managing an SD-WAN network in-house may be a more attractive solution, especially if it has already invested resources in establishing an SD-WAN.

    1. Existing Expertise: Personnel who have worked with a company’s infrastructure and have experience taming SD-WAN connectivity and security concerns, which reduces the learning curve for deployment. 
    2. Complex Requirements: Regulated industries such as finance or healthcare have complex requirements for secure data. They must conduct frequent internal assessments to ensure compliance. These stipulations may be difficult for some managed providers to address.
    3. Added Security: For organisations with a robust security posture, moving to a managed SD-WAN may increase security vulnerabilities in a hybrid environment. It may be more cost-effective to self-manage than reconfigure a security infrastructure

    The primary advantage of self-managed SD-WAN is control. When managed in-house, IT departments have full visibility of the network and can comply with security standards quickly. This capability is crucial when dealing with highly regulated industries where financial penalties are assessed.

    SD-WAN Challenges

    Whether a software-defined network is managed in-house or through a provider, the technology can present the following challenges:

    1. Reliability

    Unreliable internet connectivity is the bane of any distributed enterprise. Depending on location, the lack of reliability compromises operations with little recourse. In those situations, SD-WAN may not be the best solution. Before embarking on a project, companies need to investigate how bandwidth is managed and what options are available for improved reliability.

    2. Security

    More managed SD-WAN providers are incorporating added security into their services. If the proposed solution requires security reconfigurations because of a connectivity change, the benefits of the software solution become negligible. It may even increase exposure while the security changes are being implemented. Assessing the risk of implementing SD-WAN technology in a hybrid environment should be part of any migration plan.

    3. Visibility

    One concern with any cloud-based solution is the degree of visibility that a company has over their network operations. Some organisations develop solutions that enable a more comprehensive look at the data, while others live with the lack of data. Finding ways to monitor network operations and data management is an ongoing challenge and should be evaluated before moving to SD-WAN.

    Tip 3: Understand SD-WAN Pricing 

    Determining the cost-effectiveness of a managed SD-WAN solution can be challenging, because costs vary by provider and by factors such as:

    • Number of sites and data centres
    • MPLS costs per site based on bandwidth
    • Internet cost per location

    For managed services, the service-level agreements (SLAs) define the services provided and their associated costs; however, they may not address the costs should requirements change. Consider the following questions when looking at a possible solution:

    • Will locations be added or closed in the next two to five years?
    • What percentage of the workforce will work remotely in the next two years.
    • How many applications are or will be cloud-delivered?
    • Are there anticipated changes in the MPLS solutions in the next three years?

    Once the existing and potential requirements are defined, compare the pricing options of the top candidates. When looking at cost, do not forget to include the cost savings for equipment purchases and maintenance or added staffing.

    Tip 4: Consider Cloud Connectivity

    SD-WAN providers use connections to the public cloud, however, how they connect may vary.

    • Suppliers may have cloud-native solutions that use the cloud as their backbone infrastructure.
    • Vendors may have their SD-WAN appliances in the cloud, but use either public gateways or private backbones.
    • Providers may require customers to deploy appliances on a local cloud.

    The SD-WAN landscape is evolving and its infrastructure opens unexplored opportunities for growth. However, companies need to evaluate their existing and future connectivity requirements to determine the best approach for long-term viability.

    Tip 5: Clarify SD-WAN Integration

    SD-WAN technology is an integral part of any environment. Its operations cannot be separated from the underlying network provisioning. Although the solution can improve on hardware-based solutions, it cannot deliver significant benefits if the individuals managing the technology lack expertise.

    As the market develops, more providers will incorporate security into their solutions. It will become an integrated part of deployment. Having security built-in to the solution is preferable to adding it on top of the SD-WAN infrastructure. 

    Integrating all components into a consolidated view of the network makes it possible to take advantage of SD-WAN benefits and to mitigate some of its challenges. With data visibility at a central location, companies can see what is happening in real-time and apply security policies to counter possible compromises.

    Moving to SD-WAN with Highlight

    As SD-WAN grows in popularity, managed providers are likely to see it fall prey to the commoditisation of IT services. Value-added services are what will ultimately separate providers moving forward. 

    At Highlight, we understand that creating differentiated experiences is crucial for managed services providers when it comes to selling a commodity product. That’s why we used twenty years of industry experience to create a reliable Service Assurance platform designed to drive commercial success. With Highlight, service providers can access the tools they need to overcome the challenges associated with SD-WAN and unlock a range of benefits.

    Sustained Growth

    So, when SD-WAN becomes a commodity, how can you differentiate yourself? Highlight helps companies and clients overcome visibility issues with end-to-end oversight that utilises a holistic approach, simplifying both monitoring and performance usage. Data and insights can be shared to ensure growth, and the solution can compensate for cloud-based challenges by presenting data through reports and alerts to drive real-time pictures of network operations.

    Service Assurance

    The increase in visibility Highlight offers also makes it easier to communicate and understand what is happening in real-time, translating into increased operational efficiency. Simply moving report generation to a Service Assurance frees staff from hours of research and compilation. Sharing that data with customers, employees or suppliers can create collaborative environments for operational improvements. The information-rich communication and enhanced levels of transparency Highlight helps deliver allows managed service providers to become a trusted partner in the eyes of customers.

    Actionable Insights

    Companies collect volumes of data, but without contextualising this information, it’s just points on a chart that add little value. Through the deployment of centralised dashboards, Highlight delivers an insights driven service that helps turn this data into consistent and visual information, making it easier to identify operational concerns. The platform also allows a more comprehensive use of data by storing both real-time and historical information, thereby allowing users to understand what is working and what has worked previously. With Highlight, users can jump to what is of interest from a single dashboard, saving time and resources while minimising frustration.

    With the Highlight Service Assurance Platform, managed service providers can offer value-added services that provide customers with data-driven insights, strengthening relationships and engaging with them as an extension of their team in the process

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    1The 2021 SD-WAN Growth Report is Here!

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