Can SD-WAN help manage hybrid networks?

Corporate networks have been changing for many years. Individual offices used to send important business traffic via high-speed links, commonly run over assured MPLS lines. 

With the rise of cloud computing, digital business and an increasingly dispersed workforce, the ways in which the corporate network is used have evolved. Enterprises have diversified their connections, augmenting their MPLS lines with lower-cost internet, mobile and other types of connectivity access, forming hybrid networks. Internet access is now more important than ever for businesses that need to be nimble, flexible and cloud-centric. 

Enterprises are increasingly turning to SD-WAN to make this possible. At the end of 2019, more than two-thirds (68%) of companies were planning to introduce SD-WAN into their network WAN strategy in 2020, either solely or as part of a hybrid WAN. The promise of SD-WAN is that it will help simplify the management of these increasingly complex enterprise networks and assure performance of critical applications. But can it truly deliver?

SD-WAN will give you better visibility to optimise traffic flows

A common feature of any SD-WAN platform is that it gives a centralised view of all your available network resources and allows you to dynamically control the traffic that runs across them. This can help you increase available bandwidth without greatly increasing network spend, in a couple of ways. 

Firstly, you can start to prioritise your traffic in a much more granular way. You can send your critical traffic over the higher-quality routes in your network – those with assured performance (e.g., MPLS) – and send the less-important or more latency-tolerant traffic over your less-assured but lower-cost connections. 

Secondly, you can also change how you utilise the network you have in place at your various sites. For resiliency purposes, you probably have some or many sites with either diverse MPLS and/or internet backup lines where one line remains unused unless the primary line fails or is out of action for any reason. With SD-WAN, your sites can have both lines in use at the same time (more or less doubling your available bandwidth on-site), and still have them serve as failover links for each other if required. 

SD-WAN will make QoS management fast, simple and scalable

SD-WAN services allow you to make central policy changes and push them out to the network. This is generally done through a self-service portal, making quality of service management simple.

This also means that SD-WAN can be very attractive for companies with a large number of sites, as it enables your team to work smarter, not harder. Need to spin up network at a new site? Need to spin up ten new sites? Simply roll out all the policies and parameters from the template you made earlier. SD-WAN enables a new level of agility and speed when it comes to extending your corporate network and all of its specifications. 

SD-WAN will not pick up the phone for you

When it comes to optimising performance and standardising policy across your network, hybrid network management is made easier with SD-WAN. However, it can’t make up for the fact that the underlying network still needs to be procured and maintained on an ongoing basis. A benefit of SD-WAN is that it gives you more control to match your business and application traffic demands to the different connectivity options in your network, but this capability can also result in making your hybrid network more complex.

The more varied your network sourcing becomes in the search for the best deals and diversified routes, the more network providers you will have to manage. Each will come with its own billing system and separate help desk for faults and outages. You’ll also be faced with keeping track of a potentially dizzying array of individual SLAs and dealing with the hassle associated with resolving incidents across different suppliers. To put it candidly, SD-WAN will not be placing the phone calls required to escalate any outages with your network providers in faraway places with different local time zone business hours. 

Keeping the management of the underlying network in-house may also undermine any anticipated cost savings, if you consider the total cost for the business. Savings can quickly diminish when accounting for all access fees, including additional security and management services. In addition, managing SD-WAN connections requires expert skills, which can mean heavy investments in staff and tools for governance and incident management.

SD-WAN needs help to help you

Sourcing your SD-WAN solution from a managed services provider will further help your business case. In addition to the inherent technology benefits, you gain one point of contact, one SLA to provide an assured experience across your network, and a global service-delivery team that has people on the ground and relationships already in place to cover any location you might need connectivity support. You’ll also benefit from the provider’s experience with SD-WAN gained from the many other clients it serves. 

SD-WAN is a major step forward for corporate networking and removes much of the complexity of hybrid network management. However, to fully realise the benefits of this new innovation requires the support and expertise of a trusted network provider. One with the right scale and experience to help design and deploy a solution that fits your business, who can manage the physical network and local access vendors, as well as provide ongoing support for fault fixes and incident resolution across different geographies.

Todd Kiehn is the product and marketing executive at GTT with a passion for figuring out what the next big thing will be, bringing it to market, and then making sure it’s successful. He’s spent most of his career in telecommunications (Covad, Level 3, GTT) and electric power systems (Active Power).

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