If your company exchanges data between two or more remote locations, you’re probably facilitating that communication across a traditional WAN. But there’s a big difference in thriving with a wide area network and just getting by, which is what many organizations are doing. While subtle improvements have been made to the WAN infrastructure over the last decade or so, today’s fast changing business landscape has consequently made it tough for enterprise IT to keep pace with all the challenges. The software-defined WAN is being looked at as a potential de facto standard for WAN optimization.
What is a Software-Defined WAN?
Ironically, software-defined WAN is pretty hard to define. This is mainly because the definition tends to vary quite a bit depending on who you ask. I think the best way to sort out the mess is to view it as an extension of the software-defined networking (SDN) concept. Like SDN, the goal of a software-defined WAN is to centralize the bulk of network configuration and management using special software, which essentially puts more control in the hands of network operators. As Peter Christy of 451 Research explained in this primer piece, the heart of the concept has a lot in common with virtualization.
We can get a much better handle on this thing by looking at virtualization’s most known characteristic: abstraction. In a software-defined WAN, a hypervisor-like application abstracts the physical network topology and eases the hassle of managing the infrastructure by automating provisioning, configurations, and other tedious manual processes. It’s a pure software-based technology designed to maximize your investment in existing hardware and scale your network faster than both your IT people and processes can handle combined.
Do We Need It?
The true beauty of a software-defined WAN is unparalleled versatility that can improve flexibility and agility in a broad range of scenarios. If your organization is currently facing any of the following challenges, this concept may offer a viable solution:
You Have A lot of Business Locations
The more physical locations and users you have to support, the more complexities you’ll face in managing your network. This is where software-defined networking truly shines. Whether you have 50 or 100 locations, it enables you to quickly deploy routers across your offices and improve the speed of service delivery – all leveraging your existing internet connection. Cost and complexity are both reduced since there is no need to keep IT personnel on-site at each remote location.
High WAN Costs Are Kicking Your Butt
Multi-protocol Label Switching (MPLS) is currently the standard protocol for WAN communications. Unfortunately, it’s also expensive and often cost prohibitive, leaving many companies to rely on broadband options that lack in both security and quality of service. With a software-defined WAN, cash strapped organizations can support their transport needs by using a hybrid WAN that lowers bandwidth costs while delivering security and performance that is on par with, or perhaps even surpasses MPLS.
You Have Rich Data Needs
One reason today’s WANs are strained is due to the diversity of the data they handle. In addition to a plethora of small files, corporate networks are being asked to carry video, voice, and other files that are not only larger, but gobble up more bandwidth in the process. A software-defined WAN allows organizations to expand to a network that supports these richer data formats while leveraging hybrid a bandwidth infrastructure that keeps their connection costs affordable.
Your Niche is Dynamically Demanding
I’m speaking generally here so don’t check out on me. What do a pharmaceutical company, software firm, and video game developer have in common? They all operate in sectors that are constantly evolving. Nowadays, your ability to survive is heavily tied to your ability to adapt and innovate based on market changes. Be it due to consumer demand, competition, or industry regulations, a software-defined WAN can help companies efficiently manage their network expansion efforts without breaking the bank.
You Need to Stand Out…
Regular readers of the Recovery Zone know that we talk extensively about how managed service providers can adopt new offerings that help bolster revenue and differentiate themselves from the crowd. If you operate in the MSP field, then this software-defined network thing is one to put on your list of considerations. It offers a unique way to help clients optimize their WAN communications while helping you stay one step ahead of the competitive curve.
… But Don’t Move Too Fast
The benefits of the software-defined WAN concept are both real and compelling. As with any new technology, though, there are challenges and potential disadvantages to ponder. Vendors like Glue Networks tout that their solutions help reduce cost and complexity by leveraging your existing hardware. That’s great if you use Cisco equipment, for which its products are certified, but what if you’re running lesser known hardware not included on the compatibility list? Right there you have an issue that can prevent you from even getting off the ground.
On the subject of vendors we have another aspect that warrants concern. Although Glue Networks is one of the hottest things going in this space, the company itself is a newcomer who just recently emerged on the scene. And since software-defined networking is a relatively new phenomenon, even veteran vendors who opt to adopt will have a limited track record in successfully providing this technology. Either way, you have to be very selective in who you choose as a partner – maybe even a bit lucky.
Any technology that will replace a large part of your infrastructure should be approached with extreme caution. Benefits aside, this is not a solution you want to implement without first understanding how it will fit into your existing environment and impact your business operations moving forward.
Photo Credit: Betsy Weber via Flickr