Panoptics Network Solutions Architect, Jason Mendonça, shares his views on why the uptake of SD-WAN has been so slow.

I’ve been pondering something for a while now: Why has the uptake of SD-WAN been so slow? As an engineer, it’s easy to get caught up in the snowballing excitement of game changing tech’. That was very much the case when I began investigating SD-WAN options approximately 5 years ago. Since then, the landscape has shifted significantly. Security vendors have added bolt-on offerings to their products as an afterthought. Contrasting those which were purpose built from the ground up. The marketplace has swelled with vendors ranging from the obvious big players to smaller, niche enterprises. This has created febrile competition for market share.

What has been the outcome for businesses and end users? In a word, confusion. The barrage of marketing that has emerged has been an assault on the senses. Huge diversity of offerings, in part, contributes to confusion also. Solutions vary from those offering little more than link aggregation and load sharing to fully fledged propositions delivering a breadth of features and benefits. Solutions are perhaps best distinguished by their underpinning, key functions. Broadly speaking resulting in three categories:

1 — Service Provider (SP) SD-WAN: The giveaway here is in the name. This type of SD-WAN is operated by carriers and ISPs who use the technology as a fabric to manage their backbone networks. Remember when carriers used IS-IS and MPLS (a great many still do)? Well, nowadays there are those that use SD-WAN too. This type of provision will be entirely transparent to consumers. Knowledge of SP SD-WAN networks adds to the confusion though. A customer who had heard that their carrier operates SD-WAN recently asked me “Why does my business need SD-WAN if my connectivity provider has it too?” The answer being said provider is leveraging SD-WAN as a means to operate their core network. What the customer has bought is merely a circuit. Albeit one that may traverse the provider core. Whilst SD-WAN provides control and management mechanisms for the carrier, customer data traffic does not benefit from its existence.

2 — Carrier Managed SD-WAN: This is where a carrier resells a third-party product (or products) and deploys them atop their traditional connectivity offerings. Management is normally relinquished by the customer to the provider. Whilst this may be perceived as a benefit by some, it is of course a sword with a sharp, double edge. Relinquishing control, especially to behemoth organisations such as carriers can and will introduce the pain of having to deal with said carriers, their call centres, service desks and ticketing systems in order to enact moves, adds, changes, monitoring requests, alert configuration, break fix……..

3 — Enterprise Over The Top SD-WAN: A scenario where an enterprise procures SD-WAN appliances and associated technologies. Deploying them to create a software abstracted network overlay that is reliant upon but independent from the physical underlay network. In other words, the SD-WAN makes use of any transit media / connectivity that is presented to the appliances. Appliances build overlays to each other over both public and private circuits facilitating access to resources in data centres, branches, or IaaS.

With each distinction offering a raft of options, it’s easy to see how confusion can prevail. Typically, most businesses I engage with select the OTT model when choosing SD-WAN. Atop the myriad justifications must be cost savings. Cost savings combined with ease of deployment, management, superior, more reliable service and greater flexibility. Add reduced footprints and thus greener IT to the list and the justifications for SD-WAN become very compelling indeed.

Money talks does it not? Well no seemingly. Companies are still renewing MPLS contracts! Some choose to solve new WAN requirements by procuring access to MPLS networks. This makes no sense. Why would any organisation retain or procure costly, inflexible and often low bandwidth connectivity when low-cost, commodity services can be exploited to provide better, more effective services using SD-WAN? Is it that a leap of faith is required? 4 years ago when I was rolling out my first SD-WAN networks for customers, I could understand to a degree. Businesses and in particular large, public sector organisations are known to be risk averse and quite rightly so. I recall times such as when Microsoft released a brand new operating system. Those that rolled out first where often perceived to be “brave”. Organisations reticent to deploy SD-WAN are simply missing out. Not to mention wasting money. SD-WAN is no longer the “new kid on the block”. It’s a suite of technologies via which those “brave” first adopters are happily enjoying cost savings, increased uptimes and vastly improved user experiences.

I am not so naïve as not to acknowledge that there were some horror stories to begin with. These could largely be attributed to certain vendor solutions being pushed out to market and into customer environments prematurely. Add some poor procurement decisions to the mix and disasters were inevitable. The success stories of those who have embraced the right solutions are myriad and thankfully increasing all the time. Albeit more slowly than I for one anticipated. Both small and large organisations have made the change in a multitude of sectors and verticals. Amongst my customers are those that not only freely attest the benefits of the transition, but those who speak of transformation.

Transformation you say? Isn’t that somewhat highfalutin? No. True SD-WAN is transformative. Its place in the modern network landscape was cemented long ago. Don’t just take my word for it. The better vendors offer free PoCs. See for yourself.

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