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How to get SD-WAN success in seven steps

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(Image credit: Image Credit: Flex)

The software-defined Wide Area Network (SD-WAN) has seen considerable market success in the last several years, but the secrets to making it work might not necessarily be common knowledge. Amid the pandemic, several trends have gained momentum: First, increased public and hybrid cloud adoption by enterprises to gain business agility by running more applications in the cloud. Second, improved business continuity models and IT strategies to better adapt to unforeseen circumstances and mitigate disasters.

Enterprises have also realized the importance of a software-defined infrastructure for effective teleworking environments – a crucial component for ensuring business continuity, employee efficiency and customer service. Combine this with the need for agile cloud-ready networking and it creates the perfect opportunity for businesses to tap into SD-WAN’s benefits. So, what does a successful SD-WAN deployment entail? Here are seven steps that enterprises should consider.

1. Engage in IT transformation to the cloud

Enterprises need to include the evolution from on-premises IT to more agile cloud-delivered models in their business plan. To start, business leaders ought to have a clear understanding of what the business strategies and priorities are within the IT and networking teams so that they can optimize for those needs. Historically, enterprise IT and networking have been a bit generic, in that after the network is built, network capacity and connectivity is implemented where it’s required and every department’s needs are met with roughly the same solutions.

In reality, especially in larger enterprises, there are a lot more diverse requirements from different parts of the business. For example, parts of the business may be better served by going with an application in the public cloud, while other parts work better by keeping the applications running in-house. Because of these diverse requirements, traditional WAN, with predominantly internal connectivity to centralized applications and data, will struggle to deliver high-performing connections to IT resources in the cloud. Enterprises will need to build a common foundation, known as a universal network fabric, across the entire business that can bridge from branch to headquarters; to data centers to the public cloud; and finally to individual breakout models like mobile users, IoT devices and teleworkers.

2. Think revolution, not evolution

SD-WAN provides the opportunity to open up to the cloud. As a result, enterprises need to identify the strategic end state and end goal of their business models, and then step-by-step implement it evolutionarily so that the architecture can be revolutionized. This revolution would include incrementally going from traditional hub and spoke architectures that connect branches to data centers/HQ to a full mesh architecture that can connect any user or device, anywhere, to any application, anywhere.

Notably, past VPN technologies have delivered incremental speed changes but on the same legacy hub and spoke topology. That can now change as SD-WAN technology provides secure network paths direct to multiple clouds as well as any on-premise resources. WAN topologies that offer full mesh and direct branch-to-cloud architectures will fundamentally change the efficiency of both users and applications. 

3. Prepare to keep hold of some MPLS

No one regrets buying quality services, and in network transport, the highest quality services are based on multiprotocol label switching (MPLS). Early enterprise understanding of SD-WAN’s value proposition was that by replacing MPLS with Internet, you can save costs. While cost savings are available, it’s not necessarily ideal for the entire enterprise footprint and limits the opportunity. Particularly for large or multi-national enterprises, it can be more cost-effective to retain MPLS in specific parts of the network.

That being said, SD-WAN is ideal for building a new WAN foundation using MPLS, Internet, and mobile broadband services in a complementary way. Today, many organizations are using SD-WAN to combine different access technology on a site-by-site basis to boost performance and lower costs. This doesn’t mean the end for MPLS, as for many enterprises, it’s still used to provide guaranteed performance for business-critical applications at business-critical locations, while general applications and less critical locations can use higher bandwidth/lower-cost internet services.

4. More SD-WAN = bigger benefits

A software-defined network’s benefits are fully realized at scale. Therefore, enterprises are likely to reap bigger benefits as they move more of the network to SD-WAN. Imagine you have 10 sites, the highest efficiency you can gain from SD-WAN will be spread across 10 locations. But if you have 1,000 locations, that same efficiency can be spread throughout all 1,000 sites as well. Thus, the more sites you have on board, the greater the benefits that can be achieved using approaches such as Application-Aware Routing (AAR), traffic optimization, local branch internet breakout, etc.

SD-WAN is also fundamentally different from the traditional WAN, as it has a different operational mindset, so the design, architecture and implementation needs to be done with this in mind. An SD-WAN implementation should be more focused on application performance and user efficiency than just connectivity. Through this approach, enterprises will see significant improvements in the way their business consumes network resources and bandwidth.

5. Lessen human dependency with Zero-Touch Provisioning (ZTP)

Today, many processes, procedures, validations and compliance revolve around automation. As a result, ZTP is a huge benefit of SD-WAN because it promises less human intervention and interaction as enterprises add locations or make changes to the network. ZTP provides the capability of remotely provisioning a branch anywhere in the world, with little to no on-site networking expertise – offering a truly remote installation experience for many enterprises. But there’s a catch: The SD-WAN service will rely heavily on the underlying transport services to the location, so it’s crucial to ensure that the access circuits support the requirements. To do so requires selecting the right type of access technology and ensuring it’s fully functional and meeting pre-defined specifications before installing the SD-WAN gateway at a branch.

6. Mass network changes? Take it step by step

The utopian SD-WAN scenario is the capability to make extensive and automated changes to the running configurations of your WAN swiftly in response to changing conditions, leveraging artificial intelligence and machine learning to replace human intervention. That’s possible, but it must be done carefully and with a detailed understanding of what constitutes ‘normal’ behavior for each part of the network. When making a fundamental change in a network’s architecture and operating practices, it’s imperative to prove things on a small scale, as well as test for both success and failure. 

This allows the identification of potential risks and pitfalls, so that mitigation procedures can be put in place. Moreover, to minimize any risk of disruption, enterprises should leverage insights from peers and partners to select the optimal maintenance window. This brings us to the final step…

7.  Leverage industry knowledge for ultimate success

For enterprises going on the SD-WAN journey, it’s imperative to leverage industry expertise so that you can reap the full benefits the deployment can offer. This means finding suitable partners (e.g. technology, integration or operational), system integrators, service providers, vendors and peers, as they can offer many strategic insights to building an SD-WAN infrastructure. For peer learning, reaching out to other enterprises in your segment will be particularly helpful with identifying strategies and procedures that are suitable for your industry needs. SD-WAN implementations also require high-quality connectivity and constant management of the underlay transport services. 

Organizations should work closely with their transport provider(s) as well as their SD-WAN managed service provider (if different) to ensure Service Level Agreements are met through continuous monitoring and demarcation of responsibility is agreed between all parties.

Lindsay Newell, Head of Marketing, Nuage Networks, from Nokia