SD-WAN: welcome to the wide area network that’s more intelligent and gives you greater control

Among the past 50 years of technological evolution are three things that have touched the lives of every one of us.

City scape with connected lines representing a network

Among the past 50 years of technological evolution are three things that have touched the lives of every one of us.

First, processing power has grown exponentially – as costs have come down. Technology is one of the few things in life that tends to get cheaper as it improves.

Second, the internet. And we all know how that’s turned out – I certainly could not do the subject justice in one blog.

Third, we’ve seen technology become increasingly user-friendly, making it easier than ever for people to use it in ways that would once require computer science qualifications.

This move towards the ultimate in user-friendliness has become so widespread that the term ‘user experience’ (UX) – once the preserve of technology professionals – has become a household name. Such is the importance of this concept in our everyday lives, it’s now not uncommon for consumers to complain about poor UX.

Yet, when it comes to business technology, the continued existence of IT professionals and departments tells us that the hardware and software we use in our professional lives is not necessarily as user friendly.

It’s why I work with IT professionals to help them get the most out of their business technology. And it goes without saying that because every organisation is different, every IT setup is different too – one size most definitely does not fit all.

One field of business technology where this is especially true is connectivity – the backbone of business and one of our key specialist areas here at AdEPT. And so, it’s our job to keep a close eye on developments in this area. Software-Defined Wide Area Networks, or SD-WAN, is one of those developments. And it has positive implications for businesses.

But before I look at how it works – and how SD-WAN is useful – some context.

SD-WAN isn’t an entirely new development in technology. If you look at Google Trends representing searches for the term, it seems the concept started to gain traction in early 2015. It’s grown since then, and people’s interest peaked last November, about a year before this blog.

So why am I talking about it now?

Good question.

As with all emerging technology, it’s best to avoid jumping on bandwagons for bandwagons’ sake. That is to say, at AdEPT, we extensively interrogate and evaluate new technology before it goes anywhere near our clients.

So that is what I’ve been doing – I’ve spent at least 18 months studying SD-WAN. As a company, we’ve waited until we can truly live and breathe this area of technology, because that’s what due diligence is really about – being able to honestly advise our clients of the plus points and pitfalls.

I’ve extensively assessed and hand-picked vendors. I’ve explored how they could help companies of different sizes and industries, to meet their needs, their concerns and their market conditions. I’ve studied reports and research papers. I’ve shared and debated all my findings with my colleagues. I’d even go so far to say I’ve dreamt about SD-WAN, but that may be too much information. And now I am here, writing you a blog about it.

Here’s what I’ve learned – and for the benefit of your non-IT colleagues and your internal discussions – I’m going to go back to basics.

Greater independence, giving you control

First, the clues are in the name.

Like other wide area networks (WANs), it is so called because at its heart is a network that you can use to connect computers and technology across a wide area – namely, multiple sites in different locations, or branches.

What about ‘software-defined’? This is the clever and distinguishing part of SD-WAN. As the name suggests, the network uses software, rather than hardware alone, which can be adjusted to respond to changing business needs.

And here’s the first, obvious benefit of SD-WAN. By using software, management of the WAN becomes much more intelligent – and notably, it gives greater control to users.

Imagine, for instance, a growing business that decides to upgrade its WAN because it needs more bandwidth for more services and applications – a scenario that faces most companies in most industries. Typically, such a situation would involve new hardware and help from external specialists – with associated costs – and perhaps downtime, and training.

With SD-WAN, it all becomes a lot more straightforward. Through the ‘software’ aspect of SD-WAN, the control is in your hands, and the hands of the business. This means more often than not, IT teams can make their own adjustments, often from one central location. And they can do so without external help – or certainly with a lot less external help, which can make for quicker turnaround and less expense.

Intelligent network management

SD-WAN’s benefits don’t stop there. Being able to control the WAN setup internally is one thing, but it’s what you can do to the setup that makes it so valuable.

Let’s take another scenario. Suppose your company needs to relocate staff to one location. And in doing so, you find the demand on your network increases in one area and decreases elsewhere. You have a traffic pileup in one site – with your newly-centralised staff struggling to get their work done – and free-flowing traffic in another location, where there’s little demand.

Alternatively – particularly given all that’s happened in 2020 – you may find that your staff are now more spread out than ever. Your one central office has now become hundreds of offices, as staff work from home. And again, you might find that the network that was fine for the head office is no longer right for these new ways of working.

With SD-WAN, you can redress this situation – not just at a traffic level, but at a user and application level too. And as the power to do so is in your hands, you can do so internally, helping you to keep your business running with minimal fuss.

A ray of sunshine for cloud

This leads nicely onto cloud. As you’ll no doubt know, more and more businesses are turning to the cloud to store data, and from which to run services and software. You may already be doing this in your own company. But while doing so is great in theory, it’s not always so easy in practice.  You may find more traffic jams thwart your plans for the cloud.

This is, again, where SD-WAN can come to the rescue. By directing cloud traffic through your data servers, you can give staff direct access to cloud applications, irrespective of location – and without putting a strain on your core network. You can also prioritise cloud applications according to business and location needs.

Improving cybersecurity across the board

Given that cyber attacks happen round the clock and to companies of all kinds, it’s never been more critical for businesses to have impeccable cybersecurity protecting the entire network.

SD-WAN is one way to address this, strengthening cybersecurity throughout your business, helping you ensure nothing slips through the net.

For instance, you can configure SD-WAN to use ‘encrypted tunnels’ at every location. As the name suggests, the data runs through a ‘tunnel’, offering greater protection from external threats – in practice, this has similarities to virtual private networks (VPNs).

SD-WAN also enhances cybersecurity at a micro level, thanks to the intelligent controls I’ve mentioned above. For example, you can specify how it handles certain types of traffic based on your own criteria, applications and policies.

I’m interested in SD-WAN. What next?

If you’re interested in rolling out SD-WAN in your business, you’ll find lots of companies that are only too happy to help.

And herein lies the first big consideration: which provider do you choose? Like so much in business technology, this decision can be a headache in itself. So I’ve done some legwork for you.

As part of my research, I’ve studied and interviewed and compared the providers and how they might suit different businesses – my list is as long as my arm. It includes vendors as wide-ranging as Virtual1 to Cisco.

Among the list is Fortinet. It’s considered to be the third-largest SD-WAN provider behind Cisco and VMware, but there is one area where it’s head and shoulders above the others: cybersecurity. And this is one of the reasons it’s our preferred provider – cybersecurity, after all, is one of the most critical aspects of IT today.

Fortinet is also highly regarded by Gartner, which as of September 2020, has classed it as a ‘leader’ in its Magic Quadrant of SD-WAN providers. It also meets all of Gartner’s must-haves – and in recognition of its customer reviews, Fortinet earned a 2020 Gartner Peer Insights Customers’ Choice award.

You can probably tell now that we have a leaning towards Fortinet. However – and it is a big however – we pride ourselves on being provider-agnostic. And so, when helping you with your own SD-WAN setup, we would talk you through all the possible options for providers.

What about costs and practicalities?

To help you discuss SD-WAN with colleagues outside of the IT team, I’ve made this blog as non-technical as possible. However, there are many technical aspects to consider when setting up SD-WAN, not least the configuration rules for WAN management and how responsibilities are shared.

It’s for this reason that it would be wrong to offer any kind of ‘off-the-shelf’ price for setting up an SD-WAN in your company. Like all business IT projects, there are so many individual factors that affect pricing – and consequently, the only way to make this call is to give my colleagues or me a call, so we can help you talk through what you’re trying to achieve and how SD-WAN may help. You’ll find my details below.

What is worth saying here is that setting up SD-WAN is relatively straightforward. After discussing your requirements with you and assessing your current setup, we’ll typically install a box – rather like a router – at each of your sites, before setting up the software interface. We also offer training and support, so ultimately you can become self-sufficient. Downtime is minimal – and particularly so with the right work upfront.

We’re offering SD-WAN as part of our Nebula platform – a suite of streamlined products and services to help businesses with the IT, networking and telephony. You can find out more about Nebula here.

What next?

As with all our blogs, we aim to give you the key information in a way that demystifies technology and helps you make your case internally. But as it’s the tip of the iceberg, your next step is to get in touch, where we can talk you through how SD-WAN could help your business:

  • This blog was written by Jem Campbell, Pre-sales Solutions Consultant. Jem has worked in networking and telecoms for more than 30 years – and in that time has specialised in everything from BGP to VoIP. He is a genuinely empathetic communicator and ‘people person’, priding himself on his ‘can-do’ attitude. You can connect with Jem on LinkedIn here.

Written by Jem Campbell

Pre-Sales Consultant