By Orlaith Finn

Organizations in every industry are embarking on their digital transformation journey to improve the efficiency, capability and quality of their product or service. Digital transformation is the integration of technology into all areas of a business, resulting in fundamental changes in how a company operates with the ultimate goal of maximizing what that technology can do for business. To keep up with the needs of today's unpredictable and complex enterprise networks, IT needs a new approach, and software-defined wide area networking (SD-WAN) is the perfect technology to enable this. Forward-thinking organizations with multiple sites are appreciating the benefits that cloud-friendly SD-WAN can offer in addressing the necessity for flexible, scalable and cost-efficient networking. 

As the industry becomes more data-driven and committed to the cloud, the volume of data will rise, creating a more complex and saturated environment. Before diving into digital transformation, enterprises need to understand potential challenges, including a change in data traffic patterns, the move to the cloud and security. These challenges impact all networks. However, wide area networks (WAN) experience the most significant burden given their use for connecting sites on a global level. Additionally, WANs have evolved over the past two decades. Branch offices that handle over 80% of the business transactions were connected to a headquarters-based datacenter by a router over a leased line connection, usually MPLS. This model was adequate in previous years as enterprise data centers hosted all applications.

However, traffic patterns have drastically changed as applications have begun moving to the cloud. For example, enterprise apps are now hosted on Amazon Web Services (AWS) or software as a service (SaaS) apps, such as Dropbox or Salesforce. Traditional WAN is capable only of ending cloud traffic that is destined for the internet back to headquarters. This is leading to an unnecessary amount of traffic. It adds delay, degrades application performance and consumes costly leased-line bandwidth. This deficiency drives the need for more intelligent software-driven, or in this case, a software-defined model for the WAN. SD-WAN technology can help enterprises address these specific challenges and allow their digital journeys to continue.

SD-WAN is a particular application of SDN technology that controls the connectivity, management, and services between datacenters and remote branches over vast geographical distances as well as cloud instances. It uses software to more intelligently route traffic across the WAN based on the business requirements for an application. SD-WAN uses the internet as a secure and reliable form of WAN transport. The SD-WAN decouples the WAN transport services, or the data-forwarding plane, from the applications and the control function. 

In simpler terms, a traditional network is a collection of routers, switches and other purpose-built equipment. It’s an extremely fragile operation with any changes requiring lots of time, work and costs to pull off. Software rather than hardware manages the network and all its connections, across many locations where necessary. With software, you can implement a lot of changes faster and cheaper and control how that network runs. You can introduce automation, orchestrations and security in ways that were not possible before. You also gain this whole new way of looking at the network through data with visibility into applications and network traffic. This will be critical as 5G will bring yet-to-be-thought-of applications into reality. SD-WAN is a way of future-proofing what will come to be.

The deployment of SD-WAN presents many values to the enterprise. First, it can fortify an organization's broader pro-cloud vision. As cloud computing changes the traditional flow of traffic, SD-WAN solutions allow enterprises to develop a proactive “cloud-first” strategy. SD-WAN networks can better handle traffic from the cloud since it evaluates traffic patterns and chooses the most efficient path in real-time. It dynamically manages itself based on network needs.

The appeal is also scalability. Traditionally, an organization's ability to scale its applications is restricted by the size and power of its physical hardware. SD-WAN increases the efficiencies in the speed of setup. It creates newfound agility for organizations to innovate and deploy business improvements at an unprecedented pace. Processes that would traditionally require extensive hardware and lengthy lead times are now business-ready in a matter of days. Companies need the ability to scale up and down to handle customer demand and SD-WAN is capable of flexing and shifting as required.

The ability to provide high levels of security to the WAN is of vital importance in the digital world. Most platforms provide built-in security, but the ability of SD-WAN to integrate with other software appliances and service chaining seamlessly enables network administrators to build multiple levels of security. Many SD-WAN vendors offer simple security features, but that may not be enough to protect against application-layer attacks. Identifying a vendor that provides advanced security features that can easily be managed is crucial to secure data. 

SD-WAN solutions allow network administrators to take a layered approach so that they can manage and monitor activity across the entire network and into their cloud applications. The entire SD-WAN network is controlled centrally and lends itself to automation, true to its software-defined characteristic. SD-WAN controllers and orchestrators enable faster triaging and fixing of issues. By freeing up in-house resources and IT teams, it can allow an organization to better focus on core business and strategic initiatives, rather than focusing on network disruptions. 

By enabling automated, faster and more effective resolution of security issues, overall operating costs on the network dramatically decrease and ensure a better return on investment. Multinationals increasingly have offices in remote locations where connectivity is complex and expensive, thereby creating connection issues. SD-WAN allows them to optimize their                      infrastructure, without compromising performance. Where traffic flows from branch offices to the cloud, SD-WAN cleverly utilizes all available network resources by dynamically sending traffic across the most suitable bandwidth option, from MPLS to public broadband. Organizations can save on hardware, software and IT resources, especially in branch offices, by leveraging a software-defined network.

Finally, fast-emerging technologies like 5G, artificial intelligence (AI) and internet of things (IoT) are becoming truly transformational – opening up new business models, improving engagement and revolutionizing the industry. However, SD-WAN is the unglorified hero enabling all of these innovations. It increases business agility and encourages the cloud era all while reducing connectivity costs. Therefore, it is a critical ingredient in the complex enterprise networks of today.