By Charbel Khneisser, Regional Presales Director, MENA at Riverbed

As 5G continues to mature its attractiveness grows. Not least because it promises to process larger volumes of high-quality data at approximately 100 times the speed of 4G. Businesses who adopt the technology will allow employees to access applications, stream and download resources more smoothly and quickly, as well as utilize internet of things (IoT) devices, and enjoy more reliable mobile connections. However, 5G is a long way from being the end-to-end network it needs to be for enterprises to rely on it exclusively. This is due to its current lack of network coverage and security flaws, as well as other latency and network path related performance issues. To make up for these deficiencies, businesses need to adopt a hybrid networking structure that overlays software-defined wide-area-network (SD-WAN) over 5G to provide these capabilities and deliver an effective and secure infrastructure.

SD-WAN is an enabling technology

Significant demand will be placed on 5G as it develops, thanks to the broad range of applications capable of taking advantage of it, such as IoT devices. Meeting this demand requires a new, collaborative approach to network configurations. SD-WAN’s core attributes — centrally controlled policies, agility, and security — make it a perfect partner to 5G as these are the things 5G is currently lacking.

For instance, SD-WAN detaches networking hardware from its control mechanism, enabling the network to virtually adapt and manage the amount of data traffic. This means data can be intelligently routed around the network in real-time, prioritizing traffic according to how critical each application is. In doing so, it enables organizations to flexibly use 5G or 4G, as well as other transport technologies, on a case-by-case basis. As such, businesses can make the most efficient use of their hybrid networking, computational and storage resources.

How SD-WAN can increase 5G coverage for remote working

Beyond its current inability to prioritize traffic, 5G also lacks the network coverage required for it to be used in any and all locations across the globe. Small cells — low-powered antennas installed on street-level infrastructure, such as lamp posts — can easily, quickly, and cost-effectively increase coverage and capacity in high-demand areas and for high-value users, thus meeting the growing traffic demand brought about by 5G.

However, 5G doesn’t have the inbuilt capacity to continually optimize these small cells to guarantee that the best possible network performance is derived from them. SD-WAN, by comparison, does. By virtualizing the network, SD-WAN enables operators to centrally control multiple access points, flexibly allocating resources in accordance with the traffic patterns. This process, known as network slicing, allows the efficient allocation of network services which is key to the success of small cells and therefore increasing the coverage of 5G.

In practice, by facilitating the coverage of 5G, SD-WAN enables the quick creation of remote sites. This gives employees the connectivity to work flexibly, without their productivity suffering as a result of a diminished network and application performance. Crucially, SD-WAN also enables this work to be carried out safely, which would not be possible using a pure 5G network at this stage in its development.

SD-WAN as a fabric of secure access

Towards the end of 2019, researchers at Purdue University and the University of Iowa reported that they’d found 11 serious vulnerabilities in 5G networks, including the ability to conduct real-time location tracking and surveillance. Network security issues are not exclusive to 5G, however, the risk of attacks is greater. This is due to the way 5G is structured with multiple separate virtual networks sitting on a single shared infrastructure. These different slices increase the number of attack vectors that can be exploited.

SD-WAN delivers the inbuilt security 5G doesn’t currently provide. It does this by sending data through encrypted, private tunnels, meaning secure transport can be provided across insecure connectivity. Vitally, this doesn’t require routing through data centers, so security can be handled at the edge and performance will remain uncompromised.

By using SD-WAN in collaboration with 5G, businesses can achieve a secure and simply managed network, while reaping the speed and quality benefits that 5G provides. Beyond delivering a higher quality network experience, this empowers companies to improve their competitive position in their sector by adopting new approaches to how they conduct business. However, particularly in the enterprise space, users may still experience latency between them and the applications. So, whilst 5G may provide a better path, there may be occasions when SD-WAN in conjunction with Application Acceleration will deliver the best possible performance.