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SD-Wan Kenobi: Dealing with distributed workforces

remote working
(Image credit: Image source: Shutterstock/bikeriderlondon)

James Albiges, Head of Business Portfolio at Zen Internet looks at the new challenges facing organizations in dealing with distributed workforces including employees opting for permanent home working, returning to the office and everything in between. Could there be learnings to take from a galaxy far far away? Could SD-Wan Kenobi be the answer? 

Ewan McGregor may be equally adept at playing his role as Jedi Master after 16 years but the same thinking for businesses when it comes to networks is not recommended. This is because networks built 16 years ago were not designed for a world in which applications or data can be accessed from anywhere. Whether it be in the cloud or on the company network, businesses now have to adapt to the demands of employees to work from where they want.

An unforceable system

Traditional WAN networks are constructed to route all traffic destined for the internet via a single point of egress, which can potentially cause inefficiency and congestion. This can create agility challenges in trying to accommodate the flexible, distributed workforce of today’s modern age. In addition, companies are going through a period of structural change including divesting, merging and acquisitions which also further increases the need to accommodate a flexible workforce. 

On top of that, it can be difficult and costly to maintain, manage and change configurations within the traditional network designs as well as identify cloud applications that are subject to performance issues (eg latency). Should lines become congested as is increasingly the case with rising digital demands, companies with traditional networks have very few options.

Enter SD-WAN

With the need for increased flexibility to deal with the fluid nature of modern-day business working, there has been growing attention diverted towards Software-Defined Wide Area Networking (SD-WAN). What’s more, Markets and Markets believes that the SD-WAN market will grow at a 34.5 percent compound annual growth rate (CAGR) to reach $8.4 billion by 2025.  

SD-WAN appeals primarily because of the clear benefits it can offer businesses. These include:

  • Security – SD-WAN security policies can be set and applied centrally, using the most up to data threat intelligence, with the confidence it will be enforced throughout the network. This is where key experts who understand the security requirements of a business can really help and actually deliver peace of mind for business leaders with workers accessing data from any location.
  • Network optimization and resiliency – Traditional WAN networks are highly prescriptive. Engineers design traditional networks based on what they believe are the best paths for traffic or workloads, through the information they have at the time. Traffic is routed the way the “network” says it should be, which may not necessarily be the most optimum. SD-WAN offers far more flexibility and can prioritize traffic both by type and desired quality. It means traffic can be automatically routed via the best available path to its destination. This can help ensure a smooth transition of data as it comes in and out of the system, whether employees are all in the office, at home or a mix of both at the same time. This is vital to helping employees communicate together no matter where they are.
  • Operational agility – As SD-WAN networks are monitored centrally and in real-time, it means businesses will typically have access to real-time analytics. This gives administrators a better understanding of what’s going on in the network and the ability to identify problems and weaknesses, much more quickly. This could mean an impending issue with access for remote workers, potentially avoiding a drop in productivity with those trying to connect with their office-based colleagues. 
  • Flexibility – As mentioned above, many businesses require increased flexibility given the amount of significant organismal change going on currently. SD-WAN provides this by easily integrating other networks (including networks in other geographies) from mergers and acquisitions or making policy changes centrally, rather than sending employees to individual sites.

So once a business has decided on SD-WAN, how do they implement it? Well, and this may be stretching the analogy a little, there are learnings to take from Star Wars……

Approach 1: Go it alone and take a DIY approach

Taking a DIY approach is possible, but there can be experience/skills gaps in many organizations and it’s difficult to really drive through the long terms benefits of SD-WAN if this is the case. Experience in delivering complex networks can often be required to deliver the optimal solution

Approach 2: Build a star fleet around your organization

Working with a managed service provider should take the stress away from customers including setting up business requirements for flexible working. As SD-WAN is primarily built to help with increased workloads in the cloud, providers can help here too. They’ll have deep knowledge of the main cloud and SaaS providers to offer application optimization and ensure any performance problems can be diagnosed and fixed quickly. 

The end of MPLS?

In light of the benefits of SD-WAN, business leaders may think MPLS is no longer necessary. However, it still retains the ability to quickly and efficiently forward traffic and still can be the preferred transport medium for many critical applications, even within SD-WAN networks. MPLS can provide predictable, deterministic and cost-effective connectivity to a company’s data center and head office – acting as a ‘core network’. It can essentially still be used to deliver cast-iron guarantees to support core business activities. 

SD-WAN can be used to address challenges that traditional network technologies have struggled to meet, such as remote locations with poor connectivity, the ability to integrate multiple connectivity types to aggregate bandwidth or provide seamless failover, etc. This can be a key element in this fluid working environment as workers prepare to balance their time between the office and home.

It’s not a choice of MPLS v SD-WAN though. The hybrid model can provide the best of both worlds and is particularly useful for companies still invested in traditional WAN architectures. Others that are building from scratch may have no need for a traditional approach and can focus solely on SD-WAN if they wish. 

So as Ewan McGregor prepares to don the Jedi cape once more, it’s time businesses consider using SD-WAN Kenobi to help manage the return to the office – it may be their only hope.

James Albiges, Head of Business Portfolio, Zen Internet

James Albiges, Head of Business Portfolio at Zen Internet