Is Your SD-WAN Future-Proof?  If Not, Why Not?


By Charlie Ashton
Charlie Ashton is the President of 21K Consulting. The opinions expressed in this guest blog post are his own.

Woman in the hybrid workspace
The hybrid workspace is here to stay!

There's no longer any reason to deploy a "first generation" Software-Defined Wide Area Networking (SD-WAN) solution that's constrained by a vertically integrated architecture, with no flexibility for changes or enhancements to the function set after deployment. In this short post, we'll explain why "second-generation" SD-WAN allows you to future-proof your WAN infrastructure.

The hybrid workplace is here to stay

As we look back on the new challenges that the world has faced in 2020 because of COVID-19, it's hard to argue with the premise that the hybrid workplace is here to stay. This means that enterprises of all sizes view the seamless integration of flexible, remote workplaces as a business imperative. Staffers need consistent, secure and reliable access to cloud-hosted applications and corporate data, whether they're working from home, on the road, at a branch office, at their headquarters campus or even at the beach.

Consolidation challenges the ecosystem

SD-WAN has become the technology of choice for remote workplace connectivity because of the well-known operational benefits that it provides. However, consolidation continues to disrupt the SD-WAN market, with Juniper's acquisition of 128 Technology being just the latest example of M&A activity, following Cisco - Viptela, HPE – Silver Peak, Palo Alto – CloudGenix, Riverbed - Ocedo, VMware – VeloCloud and many others.

Network World summarized the consolidation trend in a 2019 article: "SD-WAN market/vendor consolidation will continue, with a few vendors separating from the pack and leading the way forward.... Consolidation will force out the vendors that have merely added a handful of rudimentary features in an effort to participate in the SD-WAN market."

We can expect the same dynamic to impact the plethora of System Integrators (SIs) and Managed Service Providers (MSPs) who offer a variety of SD-WAN services and solutions to the enterprise market. The SIs and MSPs who survive, thrive and grow will be those who can deploy and manage SD-WAN installations that deliver the most business value to their customers and enable those customers to capitalize on emerging business opportunities.

Future-proofing makes sense

As enterprises evaluate their networking strategies, they expect their WAN infrastructure to be future-proof, rather than forever constrained by their initial product choices. This means that they expect to continually leverage best-in-class products from an evolving ecosystem of both hardware and software vendors.

At the same time, companies need the capability to automatically update individual functions as better solutions become available, whether from their existing vendors or others. And to keep costs under control, they want to ensure that all their network nodes remain optimized for both CAPEX and OPEX.

First-generation SD-WAN is inflexible

First-generation SD-WAN installations were limited by monolithic, single-vendor solutions that were fixed-function and that required a full rip-and-replace operation for updates. This approach represents a significant limitation for an enterprise that has standardized on a specific security vendor across their IT network that is different from the security vendor selected by the SD-WAN provider. Often, an enterprise needs to add a newly-released network function to their SD-WAN after deployment, such as a next-generation firewall or load balancer. Or, they may want to exchange a specific application within the SD-WAN for an alternative provided by another software vendor, for reasons of cost, performance, quality or reliability.

First-generation SD-WANs also impose significant limitations on the SIs and MSPs that deliver them. They are unable to customize the SD-WAN to meet the specific needs of individual customers, or to offer solutions that are differentiated and optimized for specific vertical markets such as healthcare, financial services, manufacturing etc.

Second-generation SD-WAN is the key to future-proofing

Second-generation SD-WAN solutions get around those limitations, comprising standards-compliant virtualized applications running on "white box" servers under the control of a secure software virtualization platform, with full remote management of installation, configuration, operation and updates.

These solutions allow enterprises with multiple locations of different sizes to cost-effectively scale their deployments from devices to homes to branch offices to their headquarters (even to the beach). They can seamlessly incorporate the latest security technology even if it comes from a different vendor than their SD-WAN provider.

Second-generation architectures guarantee that users can leverage the best available SD-WAN solutions from the whole vendor ecosystem, with the freedom to change them when a better offering becomes available.

Beyond the baseline SD-WAN functions, companies can rapidly deploy additional applications on the same virtualization platform, in order to address the kind of unanticipated market needs that we've seen arise from the pandemic.

Finally, users of second-generation SD-WAN can add edge services to enable new business opportunities. Often, these applications represent extensions of functions hosted in a public or private cloud. Applications such as industrial IoT (IIoT), highly-immersive augmented reality (AR), video surveillance and smart retail all leverage edge compute to achieve critical low-latency decision-making and/or to minimize the bandwidth required for backhaul to the cloud. Significant CAPEX and OPEX savings are possible if they are hosted on the same platform as the SD-WAN functions.

CMC Networks reaps the benefits

Nico Walters, Global Innovation and Information Manager
Nico Walters

One company that understood and leveraged the benefits of a future-proof SD-WAN architecture is CMC Networks, a Communications Service Provider (CSP) based in South Africa. To provide the application flexibility that their enterprise customers needed and thereby expand their SD-WAN customer base, CMC needed to deploy unique combinations of network functions from multiple vendors on a flexible software platform located at each customer premise, that could be upgraded with additional functions after initial deployment.

Leveraging a universal Customer Premise Equipment (uCPE) software platform from Enea, CMC has expanded the market for their SD-WAN services while also accelerating their customers' business transformations. According to Nico Walters, Global Innovation and Information Manager, "Thanks to Enea, we are able to offer a cost-effective platform that supports enterprises and their SD-WAN strategies irrespective of the SD-WAN vendor they want to use, while providing the flexibility to add or remove additional services after deployment".

Future-proof SD-WAN brings new opportunities for integrators

By implementing their managed SD-WAN deployments as future-proof, centrally-managed multi-vendor solutions hosted on industry-standard uCPE platforms, SIs and MSPs can maximize the flexibility of the services they provide, expand their customer base and boost their Average Revenue per User (ARPU). What's not to like?