SD-WAN: The Networks of the Future?

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Software Defined Networking (SDN) based solutions are starting to appear frequently in the market from vendors keen to capitalise on the increased flexibility and scalability the technology offers enterprises but what exactly are they delivering?


Software-defined networking is poised to have a major impact on enterprises. The premise of SDN technology is that it can create more efficient, centralised networking management, reduce operating costs, and enable new technologies in your enterprise.

With software-defined networking (SDN), the network can direct traffic without relying on the hardware to make the decision. This capability has become critical to readying companies for new technologies such as cloud -based applications, the Internet of Things (IoT) devices, big data applications and so forth.

In a nutshell Cisco explains the raison d’etre for SDN as follows: SDN enables administrators to provision networks quickly and without manual configuration and with less impact on business activities. By decoupling hardware from software, software becomes the decision maker, shepherding network packets where they need to go. With intelligence residing in the software layer, network administrators have greater visibility and control over the network. Ultimately, technology agility translates into the possibility for new business capabilities and innovation.

Looking for a wider perspective, we asked;

What are the real benefits of SDN for the enterprise?

James Arnold-Roberts, CEO at Genius Networks

James Arnold-Roberts, CEO at Genius Networks

James Arnold-Roberts, CEO at Genius Networks, sets the stage well.

“I talk with a lot of companies that are either planning or undertaking digital transformation projects and, for most of them, upgrading and modernising their legacy wide area network is a priority. One of the most interesting things I see is that CTOs are now looking at the WAN as an asset that can make a positive contribution to the bottom line, and are exploring ways to leverage the value of their enterprise network.

IT infrastructure virtualisation, increasing enterprise mobility and the move to cloud-based comms solutions are changing the way we work and enabling companies to steal competitive advantage. By the same token, organisations with flexible, underperforming legacy networks are missing opportunity to monetise their WAN. This is where new and emerging Software-defined WAN (SD-WAN) technologies are making a difference by helping companies lower their operating costs and increase revenues from the smart delivery of network services.

One of the main benefits of Software Defined WAN (SD-WAN) is its interaction to remove the complexity, for example – prioritise network traffic in real-time by using software-defined networking principles to determine the best way to route traffic. It can also harness all types of connectivity, from cellular, to leased-line, to broadband, to Wi-Fi, and can adjust dynamically to traffic demands, including those from users accessing the network from different locations and different devices. With the built-in intelligence to learn traffic patterns over time and deal with challenges in data flow, SD-Wan has the capability to ensure that essential data is prioritised by application type and enterprise requirements.

SD-WAN services are still evolving, and some organisations are only in the early stages of piloting deployments. At the moment, there is a lot of experimentation around the edges of SDN, some say that SD-WAN solutions offer much greater flexibility, but in reality, you still need an internet connection of a given size. Gartner forecasts that by the end of 2019, 30% of enterprises will use SD-Wan technology in all their branches.”

Mark Lewis, EVP Products and Development, Interoute, says that Software Defined Networking (SDN) is transforming enterprise grade networking to address the cloud age.

“Powerful, cloud-based products are used by businesses of all sizes, from SMEs to large enterprises. When these remote and diversely located SaaS systems become business-critical, application performance to and between them becomes harder to assure. At the same time, cheap, high bandwidth services – sometimes with lower assurance levels – are permeating the market and tempting IT Directors and CIOs with the opportunity to reduce costs. Enter SD-WAN, which allows customers to mix and match Dedicated Private Access with varying Internet Access services at each site of their footprint. This allows the fine-tuning of their spend to their assurance needs, whilst simultaneously affording them the ability to optimise and prioritise their traffic at the application layer.

Put simply, it’s entirely reasonable to send web-traffic over Internet Access whilst routing VoIP, CRM and finance systems over private circuits and allow the SD-WAN devices to decide the best method to access your cloud-based apps – in real-time.

When you add in WAN optimisation and security capabilities at customer sites, especially when matched with the same capabilities hosted in a cloud, you can design a cloud-ready network that supports the immediate business needs of today, while also delivering self-tuning, optimal performance on an application by application basis for whatever comes tomorrow.”

Hussein Khazaal, Head of Marketing & Partnerships, ION Nuage at Nokia, believes the major drivers for enterprises to adopt software-defined networking (SDN) are agility, security and efficiency.

“Enterprises compete in a global environment with very demanding and savvy customers who demand speed, quality and innovative services. To meet these demands, enterprises are developing more sophisticated applications faster and more frequently than they ever have. Unfortunately, the bottleneck that they faced was legacy networking that was slow, complex and prone to errors that could threaten user and network security.

SDN offers Enterprise customers a way out, where they can speed network provisioning without sacrificing flexibility or security. In fact, it enables them to simplify the process and quickly adapt to any future change. SDN ‘s architecture creates a separation of the management, control and data planes and moves the complexity into software and away from hardware. This architectural shift introduces CAPEX and OPEX savings that enables these enterprise customers to use their resources much more efficiently than effort before, extending the life of the hardware they have and maximizing the utilisation of their resources.

Using SDN, enterprises can quickly address their challenges without a heavy investment in a complete hardware refresh. With SDN, centralised policy-driven software can be used to dramatically improve agility, optimise processing resources, while ensuring network security that will future proof their deployment.”

Neil Wilson, Product & Marketing Manager at Virtual1, says the benefits for themselves are clear, they are; flexibility, significant efficiency gains, the removal of human error, and a big increase in the speed of delivery of solutions for their partners.

“The benefits do not stop there however, through standardising change across the network, we are able to give our Partners the ability to amend configurations through 1Portal – and soon through an API too. This goes a step beyond just reducing our SLA’s to our Partners, it removes us entirely from many change requests, empowering Partners to make changes themselves.

It is this empowerment where I see the biggest opportunity for the Channel to differentiate and drive additional revenues from bespoke service wraps. With the independence to implement change in real time, on their own terms, partners can differentiate on the service they provide. Such as offering chargeable tiered support with increasingly aggressive SLA’s in return for a management fee.”

Rich McAlpin, Connectivity Propositions Lead at KCOM is unequivocal, “Yes. Application performance can improve due to better load-balancing and a more effective distribution of traffic. Setting up a network in SDN can be as easy as creating a VM instance.”

Can SDN really provide centralised networking provisioning?

Wayne Mason EMEA Head of Vendor Management, at Westcon

Wayne Mason EMEA Head of Vendor Management, at Westcon

“It certainly can,” says Wayne Mason EMEA Head of Vendor Management, at Westcon. “But as part of a comprehensive network transformation strategy it yields additional capabilities, which in turn deliver sought after savings and efficiency gains.

With the right underlying network ecosystem, the Extreme Management Centre, for example, is a powerful single-pane-of-glass allowing a central team to optimise performance dramatically. From a room, it can integrate wireless and wired, manage inventory, deliver insight and trend analytics, centralise policies either user or device based that can change according to who, where and when variables, integrate 3rd party apps, troubleshoot, control access, set alarms and automate responses. In short more can be done, more effectively and way more intelligently.”

Justin Fielder, CTO at Zen, is also in the affirmative.

“Today Zen and SDN networking partner Evolving Networks already do exactly this, and interestingly we do it on our existing non-SDN core network. By having a tight working relationship between Zen and Evolving Networks where Evolving can rely on having a quality and highly performant core and access network enables Evolving to deliver centralised network provisioning, both user orientated and entirely automatic based on demands being placed on the network, in a reliable form.

We are working with our partners to ensure that we appreciate the end-to-end needs of partners such as Evolving, and when we join our new SDN core and access network controller into the end user network controller then ‘magic will happen’.”

Rob Clark, Director, Technologies & Solutions Development at Nuvias Advanced Networking, pragmatically adds, “The SDN controller plane allows for centralised deployment of policy, ruleset and configuration. Obviously, it can only act on what physically exists within the network, so cannot literally provision new hardware; however, once the hardware is visible to the SDN controller, it can push the relevant configuration, which enables a ‘zero touch installation’ methodology.”

Will SDN deliver lower operating costs?

James Arnold-Roberts at Genius Networks says that according to Gartner an organisation spends around a fifth of its budget on voice and data networks and staff.

“Gartner also advises CTOs on how to cut network expenses by up to half. This includes deploying SIP trunking that can save up to 50% of voice connectivity. Another way of reducing costs is to use a hybrid WAN architecture incorporating SD-WAN technology, this can reduce WAN expenditure by as much as 50%.”

Santos Muro, Architectural Lead - Enterprise Networking at Comstor

Santos Muro, Architectural Lead – Enterprise Networking at Comstor

Santos Muro, Architectural Lead – Enterprise Networking at Comstor believes that for most organisations SDN can and does have a major impact on OpEx.

“The reduction in time and labour costs of managing, monitoring, provisioning, service updates and troubleshooting are huge. Encounter no choked traffic getting to a site, with all the costs (including environmental ones) that incurs. Plus, you get associated facilities savings from lower power, cooling, cabling, floor space demands and other on-site costs.

There are costs of migration though, but it’s not rip and replace. Some existing Cisco infrastructure and licences can be used with the new kit and software, so sites can add and enhance in a way most cost-effective to them as they progress on their DX strategy. Again though, the major benefit is the potentially huge reduction in that other OpEx – opportunity cost – throughout the organisation. Being more agile, leaner and faster means greater productivity, lower costs, higher revenues and more profit.”

Hussein Khazaal at Nokia tells us that many of his customers experience OPEX savings that range between 40%-60% using SDN than without an SDN platform.

Conrad Mallon, Chief Network Architect at SSE Enterprise Telecoms states that by using virtualisation to simplify the management of network resources, users increase capacity without significantly increasing costs.

“Enterprises have greater control, agility and connectivity across the network. It keeps costs down by allowing businesses to prioritise their spending to other areas of the business.”

Neil Wilson at Virtual1, “Definitely, it has been a vital ingredient in driving our network expansion without the need to dramatically expand our workforce.

I’ve already mentioned the labour reductions and efficiency gains above, to give it a real-world example, a partner recently won a 300-circuit deal where typically, on a build we would have to assign a substantial number of engineers to the task. With SDN, however, we could populate all of the databases within the CRM system to determine where the sites are and what kind of configurations they were going to need. After this, we just hit the go button to generate 300 identical configurations on demand, then it was just a case of shipping the routers to site and plugging them in.”

“It should, but only if done properly,” cautions Nic Elliott, Chief Technology Officer, Evolving Networks.

“Expensive leased lines can be replaced with multiple broadband lines, core network routing functions can be achieved on existing virtual platforms, and changes to networking can be made much quicker. The danger, however, is that in the short-term organisations have to skill up in new areas, and have to transition from existing network topologies and security arrangements. SDN does allow for hybridisation, but there is the risk that because of the potential disruption, enterprises end up permanently in a hybrid environment, which may actually end up being more expensive.

A pure SDN solution has lower operating costs, but business and enterprise need to choose robust migration methods and commit to speedy change to benefit from those cost savings.”

Ed Says…

It’s an exciting time in networking as the sector undergoes its own digital transformation from a hardware based legacy to a software controlled and driven future. For the user, the benefits can be enormous; from faster and far more flexible provisioning to reduced costs.

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David Dungay

Editor - Comms Business Magazine