IT experts have been talking about software defined networking for years. But now the conversation is increasingly happening in the boardroom too. More organisations see software-defined wide-area networks (SD-WAN) as a low-cost way of enhancing the flexibility of their network so they can continue to transform for the digital future.
But when’s the right time to embrace what’s still a new technology?
SD-WAN technology lets IT departments create virtual networks from the range of options available to them – ethernet, leased line or internet, depending on the site. This means they can optimise the routing of internal traffic and applications, and improve network performance. They can use public or private clouds for services and applications, and give priority to the applications that need it, as and when they need it. So there’s no danger of the CEO’s video conference with global analysts going wrong because a payroll application is doing a batch upload to a data centre.
An SD-WAN lets you add or move locations quickly and keep your business fast on its feet. And it lets you do all this from one place, doing away with the complexities of running a network from multiple locations.
But SD-WAN is still a new technology. Some of the vendors behind it are small businesses or start-ups, and the more established telecoms vendors are only now developing their SD-WAN portfolios. That means global standards don’t exist yet. One vendor may not deliver SD-WAN in the same way as another. So you might find yourself either locked in to your supplier, or needing to start – rather expensively - from scratch if the supplier goes out of business or you need to switch for some reason.
So, there are some important questions to ask before you commit to SD-WAN.
Or, to put it another way, what problem are you trying to solve? If your business changes often – opening new offices or branches, switching locations, increasing remote working – your existing network needs to be as agile as your business to keep up. If that sounds like you, SD-WAN could be the right move.
On the other hand, if your networking or application needs aren’t that likely to change in the foreseeable future, it’ll be a lot further down the to-do list, despite the potential cost savings.
But if you’re at the point of renewing your WAN anyway, it’s at least worth investigating your options, and taking advice on different ways to build in the SD dimension.
One of the ways SD-WAN can save you money, and speed you up, is if you take the controls yourself. But you need to be able to program a network and draw up and implement the right policies. And you need to be able to work through and iron out any problems that come up. SD-WAN is still a new field, so the skills needed to get the most from it aren’t widely available yet.
The alternative to the DIY approach is to buy SD-WAN as a managed service. This will cost more, and you’ll need to be clear with your supplier about making changes, how often and how quickly. Flexibility is one of the biggest potential SD-WAN benefits, so a managed service must guarantee that.
You’re interested in SD-WAN because your needs are changing. But you must be sure your connectivity can carry on changing with you. What if you move shops or branches, or switch to cloud-hosted services? What if you need to route voice and video applications differently or need more internet access? Your supplier needs to show they can accommodate many different scenarios, not just one or two.
Lack of industry standards means SD-WANs could face issues when it comes to working alongside other systems or networks. That could be a stumbling block if, for instance, you want to add more sites or routers and controllers with more capacity. It could become an even bigger issue in a merger or acquisition, when you need to bring two or more networks together.
SD-WAN is an exciting option with many potential advantages. But be sure to look beyond the obvious benefits to get your decision right.