We’ve all heard the buzz around SD-WAN, or software-defined WANs, for the technology’s ability to help organizations support a more cost-effective, robust, and agile network. Software-defined WANs have evolved into an enterprise-ready solution that has stripped down once complicated, conventional hub-and-spoke WANs. SD-WAN replaces those with lightweight WAN routers that are agnostic to WAN transport. This capability means SD-WAN can enable hybrid WAN connections, which generally include a mix of MPLS and internet links, such as broadband, fiber 4G/5G LTE, and Wi-Fi or satellite. With access to hybrid WAN connections, SD-WANs can deliver traffic across hybrid cloud IT infrastructures, regardless of the underlying application architecture. It also ensures a high Quality of Service (QoS) for critical public cloud applications because it supports load sharing of traffic across multiple WAN connections in an efficient way.

SD-WAN technologies include a centralized cloud-based management console where users can set policies for routing business-critical applications over private links, and other less-critical traffic over the public internet, all according to business and application requirements. With these benefits, it’s no wonder that IDC predicts that the SD-WAN market would total $8 billion by 2021, up from only $225 million in 2015. (Source: IDC). For enterprises looking at SD-WAN options, there are several paths to consider around how the solutions will be managed (i.e. Do-it-Yourself/DIY, service providers, or hybrid) and opportunities for branch deployments.

Managed SD-WAN vs. DIY in-house

Typically those that follow the DIY SD-WAN model are large organizations that have skilled network professionals on staff to set up SD-WAN deployments, which can be a significant undertaking. Implementations require specific experience and skills to define and implement just the right SD-WAN solution and to manage and optimize its performance over time. Often organizations looking to add SD-WAN services to their existing MPLS private network look to outside managed service providers for help to meet their complex requirements. No longer seen as a commodity, SD-WAN delivered as a service offers many benefits including the opportunity to bundle other critical networking services such as security, reliability, service options, and connectivity.

SD-WAN hybrid management

For those companies that don’t fit neatly into one bucket or another, there’s the hybrid approach to SD-WAN deployment and management. This approach could include small and midsize businesses and even large enterprises. A hybrid approach is useful because an organization can lean on a service provider’s expertise and bundled options to fully optimize their SD-WAN deployments and then take over the reins to manage those SD-WANs in-house. An SD-WAN service provider may provide multiple types of broadband connections, private-link MPLS, and even mobile or LTE services into their branch offices. A managed partner can streamline management by merging these services, offering ongoing maintenance and support, and connections all on a single bill.  In many cases, when paying for SD-WAN as a service that’s fully managed, or via a hybrid model, businesses can leverage providers’ direct connections into public cloud services, such as AWS, Microsoft Azure, or SaaS vendors. With the enterprises’ growing reliance on public and private cloud services, plugging into these providers’ direct connections with cloud vendors can deliver significant cost savings and more reliable application performance. By taking some management responsibilities and leveraging an SD-WAN provider’s WAN-to-cloud infrastructure, many organizations are finding the optimal balance between ensuring the highest level of performance for cloud-connected apps and keeping costs lower.

Moving to a software-defined branch office

For those companies transitioning to SD-WAN specifically for branch office support, there are additional factors to consider. Re-architecting WAN connections to branch and remote sites can be a significant challenge. Creating a software-defined branch means giving organizations the ability to manage many network functions via the cloud and a centralized control panel. SD-WAN for branch sites means consolidating the equipment used at a remote location, such as routers, firewalls, wireless access points, security and threat management systems, and WAN optimization tools, into a single virtualized system. Managed service providers can deliver guidance on setting up cost-effective and efficient software-defined branches, ultimately allowing enterprises to be more flexible and competitive. Once set up, organizations can spin up sites more quickly and cheaply and either take over SD-WAN management and maintenance or keep it with the provider.

SD-WAN is moving fast to replace the traditional enterprise WAN for its ability to reduce service costs and downtime and to improve network security and flexibility. With software-based control through virtualization and a cloud-based management console, enterprises can expect simplified branch network operations and a higher QoS of software and applications delivered via the cloud. Whether transitioning to an SD-WAN and managing it in-house or working with a managed service provider, SD-WAN offers a more flexible approach to networking that meets diverse requirements, either for on-demand bandwidth or the need for consistent network performance across multiple sites.

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