It’s Time to Rethink Networking

by Milind Bhise

This article is the first in a two-part series. Read the second part here.

Remember the days when just having a broadband Internet connection at your desktop PC represented an exciting – even revolutionary – development? Thanks to the ubiquity of powerful smartphones and other mobile devices constantly connected to the internet via high-speed Wi-Fi and LTE cellular networks, we recall those early broadband days about as fondly as 14th century Europeans did the Dark Ages. Today’s enterprise users are highly mobile, require anytime, anywhere access to the cloud, and consume more bandwidth than ever. Their demands for high application performance levels at even the farthest-flung branch offices along with the increased adoption of the hybrid cloud and flexibility of the delivery of applications are rendering the traditional enterprise WAN architecture obsolete. This digital transformation is breaking the IT organization of its long-held habit of relying on the hardware centric and CLI driven routers. Instead, an increasing number of enterprises are applying software-defined wide area network (SD-WAN) technology to better manage complex hybrid network topologies and achieve higher levels of network visibility, performance, security and agility.

What is SD-WAN?
Before diving into why SD-WAN is emerging as the preferred option for displacing the multi-billion-dollar legacy branch office router market, let’s first take a step back and define what it is. After all, SD-WAN is an emerging concept that remains unfamiliar to many network professionals. One-third of network professionals surveyed by Webtorials Editorial/Analyst Division for its “2016 State-of-the-WAN Report” indicated they are either very or extremely familiar with SD-WAN. They’re in the majority, although it’s clear SD-WAN is gaining traction as that number is double what it was in the 2015 report.

The report’s author, Ashton Metzler, explains that: “(SD-WAN) centralizes the control function into an SDN controller. The controller abstracts the user’s private network services from the underlying IP network and it enables the operations of the user’s private network services via centralized policy. The controller also enables the automation of management tasks such as configuration and provisioning and it sets up virtual overlays that are both transport and technology agnostic.”

SD-WAN is so attractive because it enables IT to take a holistic approach that hides the underlying complexity and makes orchestrating enterprise and cloud connectivity point-and-click easy. Instead of trying to manage thousands of manually configured routers, IT can centralize management via virtual network designs, zero-touch provisioning, and easy change management. With SD-WAN, IT can deploy and manage remote branch connectivity in a cost-effective way.

I referred to SD-WAN as “emerging,” but that emergence won’t take long. IDC’s 2016 “Software-Defined WAN (SD-WAN) Survey” found that enterprise demand for SD-WAN is surging. 70 percent of survey respondents expect to use SD-WAN in the next 18 months. IDC expects the market to grow from less than $225 million in 2015 to more than $6 billion in 2020.

The network is finally within reach of the digital transformation that has reshaped the rest of the enterprise IT architecture. It’s long overdue because so many enterprises are increasingly adopting Internet-based applications and services (i.e., SaaS and IaaS), using more video and other bandwidth-intensive applications, and deploying hybrid WAN topologies at remote locations. And they’re trying to do everything without adding dedicated IT personnel on-site at all remote locations.

Achieving success with all of those initiatives demands a fundamental rethink of networking to keep pace with the digital transformation and reshape how business gets done. Legacy approaches that are hardware-centric and CLI-driven are too rigid, complex and error prone for the cloud era.

Stepping back in time once again, if I asked you 10 years ago to create a diagram of what a WAN looked like; you could have just drawn a straight line. All apps were housed on-premises, and everything connected over a single unified WAN. Today, that diagram looks more like a plate of spaghetti. The hybrid WAN is a tangle of lines that connect the data center, remote locations, cloud and applications.

Milind Bhise is the senior director of product marketing at Riverbed.

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