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Digital transformation and the future WAN

(Image credit: Image Credit: Flex)

There can be no doubt that the face of both the enterprise workforce and the network is changing.  The traditional wide area network (WAN) set-up is dead.  Networks designed to meet the needs of fixed branches accessing applications within private data centres are not capable of delivering the agility, security and efficiency required for Digital Transformation.  The forces of cloud, mobile and the Internet of Things (IoT) are combining to transform enterprise networks.  IT departments are now faced with the challenge of providing connectivity to remote workers, distributed branches and numerous ‘things’ anywhere, whilst ensuring visibility, security and control. 

WAN transformation

In contrast to most components of IT, the price and performance attributes of WAN services have not obeyed Moore’s Law.  Until recently there has been little fundamental innovation in the design and implementation of the WAN.  In the traditional hardware-centric approach to networking, where network functionality is implemented in dedicated hardware appliances, functionality evolves slowly. Configuration, provisioning, change management and de-provisioning are time consuming and prone to error. 

Digital Transformation requires WAN transformation.  The traditional approach to networking cannot support the new Connected Enterprise.  Several changes are placing huge pressure on WAN connectivity, performance and uptime requirements: expanded public cloud workloads and applications; pervasive connectivity for an exponential number remote network endpoints and the security ramifications of network traffic shifting from private intranets to the public Internet.

Branch connectivity will always be important, but the real growth in connected endpoints is in people and things.  Work is no longer a place you go, but rather a thing that you do from wherever you are and on whatever device you choose.  IoT is poised to make up the largest constituency of endpoints in the coming years, with Gartner estimating there will be more than 7.5 billion connected devices deployed within enterprises by 2020.  Rather than fixed, the network Edge is now in motion.  It is an ‘Elastic Edge’ – moving and changing to reflect the needs of the Connected Enterprise.

This shift presents numerous challenges, but a combination of new and evolving technologies has emerged to facilitate the necessary WAN transformation.  Cloud-based management and orchestration, Software-defined WAN (SD-WAN), and advancements in the cost and capabilities of LTE services are facilitating a new unified approach to the Connected Enterprise network.  Together, these technologies allow enterprises to build self-optimising and self-healing WANs that provide pervasive and elastic connectivity at significantly lower capital and operating cost per endpoint. 

No ‘one size fits all’

The Open Networking Foundation (ONF) describes Software-Defined Networking (SDN) as the ability to decouple the “network control and forwarding functions enabling the network control to become directly programmable and the underlying infrastructure to be abstracted for applications and network services.” 

As such, SDN represents the most significant change to enterprise networking since the introduction of the Internet.  SDN is not a single technology, but an umbrella concept covering various applications.  There are many SDN technologies addressing the different network infrastructures that span from the data centre to the WAN edge.  In the same way there are a variety of approaches to extending SDN to branch, mobile, and IoT networks. 

SDN fundamentally changes not just how networks are built and managed, but how they evolve.  New functionality can be developed on a quicker software-based development time frame versus a relatively long hardware development time frame, while also making it possible to programmatically control the network from a central location.  The software-defined Wide Area Network (SD-WAN) brings together cloud, mobility, scalability and agility.  The network can be programmatically controlled from a central location and network services – such as end-to-end Virtual Cloud Networks (VCN) and secure cloud gateways (SCG) – can be abstracted from the underlying infrastructure. 

The new horizon 

IDC estimates the global SD-WAN market will grow from just $227 million in 2015 to $8.05 billion in 2021, a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 69.6 per cent.  With such significant growth, it is important to acknowledge that there is nothing wrong with the traditional approach to networking.  After all, it has served the industry well for decades, but it was designed to solve a different set of challenges.  SD-WAN has evolved to support a new set of requirements, from providing connectivity to an ever-increasing number of mobile workers and public cloud providers to supporting the potentially unlimited number of connected IoT devices. 

The traditional WAN set-up is expensive and bandwidth constrained, due in part to the historical reliance on multiprotocol label switching (MPLS) circuits to provide deterministic performance of branch applications.  SD-WAN alleviates this dependency by combining multiple low-cost and high-performance Internet broadband links – including more cost-effective connectivity such as 4G LTE – into a hybrid WAN edge that uses real-time policy and orchestration with intelligent path selection to provide continuously optimised application performance.

But bandwidth is only half of the WAN cost equation.  The other is WAN complexity – the growing number of people required to keep it running and the slowing effect it is having on business agility.  Traditional WANs have evolved to the point of paralysing complexity.  Even minor changes take weeks, if not months, to implement.  SDN transforms the WAN from fragile to agile, making it cloud-like in terms of flexibility and elasticity by employing cloud management, orchestration, and automation capabilities.

The future is now

For businesses of all size and across many industries, Digital Transformation is no longer something on the distant horizon, it is happening now.  The Connected Enterprise needs improved application performance for business critical applications.  It requires constant WAN availability, in both branches and for mobile workers.  Network managers require complete network visibility and the ability to identify and resolve issues quickly from a central location.  The network needs to manage services based in the public cloud – such as Office 365 and other Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) applications – providing secure access while maintaining control over business critical data.

But before the benefits of Digital Transformation can be realised, the complex, constrained, and costly legacy WAN needs transformation.  A new generation of WAN infrastructure technologies has emerged – including cloud management and orchestration, SDN, and advanced LTE – that enables elastic and economical WANs that provide pervasive connectivity across the enterprise and beyond. 

George Mulhern, CEO, Cradlepoint (opens in new tab)
Image Credit: Flex

George Mulhern is CEO of cloud-managed 4G LTE networking specialist Cradlepoint. His extensive experience spans senior roles at Hewlett Packard through to high-growth technology venture capital fund, Highway 12 Ventures.