It all began with software-defined networking (SDN), a technology specifically designed to enable dynamic, flexible, and scalable connectivity, capable of supporting evolving demands in data centers and on core networks.
Then came SDN to help organizations optimize traffic flows for performance and cost at remote locations, ranging from branch office sites to retail stores to Internet of Things (IoT) devices. While SDN is focused on the internal or core service provider network, SD-WAN is all about enabling connections between networks, devices, and users over a WAN.
"An SD-WAN architecture is particularly helpful for organizations that have multiple and remote offices because it reduces recurring network costs, offers network-wide control and visibility and simplifies the technology with zero-touch deployment and centralized management," explained Sanjay Bhatia, vice president of strategy, Ribbon Communications, a network technology and services provider.
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Yet another, largely hidden, SD-WAN benefit is its simplified management capabilities. Here's a look at six key ways SD-WAN technology makes network management a snap.
1. Centralized management
SD-WAN allows network management to be completely centralized. "Changes can be made quickly and across multiple sites with a few clicks of a mouse," noted Josh Goodell, vice president, Intelligent Edge, at AT&T. "It also allows templates to be created for site types that will share the same SD-WAN routing policies," he added. By assigning multiple sites to a policy template, a network manager can easily apply changes to multiple sites at once, in near-real time.
2. Web-based consoles
SD-WANs simplify network automation and provisioning over web-based consoles, which helps network managers detect any network changes and orchestrate any necessary new or modified network configurations. "It also gives connectivity for application requirements on-demand," Bhatia observed. "For example, when a unified communication (UC) user begins a simple voice session but then adds video, the allocation of WAN resources needs to dynamically adjust to the requirement for increased bandwidth and not sacrifice any quality of service."
Through centralized web-based interfaces, network managers can also quickly configure and deploy hybrid WAN links easily and consistently, independent of the type of underlying connectivity. "This means sites can be provisioned with active/active as well as failover scenarios equally easily compared to previous network generations where each router in the network needed to be configured individually," explained Sylvain Quartier, senior vice president, digital enterprise products strategy, at network solutions provider Infovista.
SD-WANs also provide automation capabilities, enabling the network manager to create and pre-configure dynamic responses to varying network traffic conditions. "This could range from allowing applications to automatically switch from one link to another based on congestion or brown-out conditions in addition to traditional failover scenarios," Quartier said. "All of this can be done quickly and deployed across the entire enterprise network from a single user console."
4. Performance-based policy routing
Users can create application-specific, performance-based policy routing to simplify their network management. "If a traditional static WAN connection is experiencing a temporary outage or transitory performance issues, the network manager should expect [to receive] complaints or trouble reports from the client sites," Goodell explained. But SD-WAN’s dynamic routing capabilities can route around performance issues until the connection is restored or performance is stabilized. "In most cases, the client sites shouldn't even be aware of an issue and, instead, should experience better application performance versus static WANs," he reported.
While an SD-WAN will normally behave according to set policies, it can also make effective decisions on the fly, processing low-priority packets in different ways to ensure network reliability, according to John Proctor, CEO of Martello Technologies, a network and cloud solutions provider. "A resilient infrastructure with managed SD-WAN services monitors the health of each ISP and distributes the required bandwidth accordingly," he noted. When a link fails to respond, it's removed from the available list but continues to be tested until ready. "As a result, you can take full advantage of ISP diversity knowing that you'll always have a healthy outbound link when your applications and services need it," he advised.
5. Detailed reporting
SD-WAN provides a level of detail in application and WAN performance reporting that offers new levels of network visibility, Goodell noted. "This network visibility allows network managers to see how the applications are being used and how they’re performing," he said.
"The best SD-WAN management platforms will not only provide automation and centralized orchestration capabilities, but also deliver performance dashboards that give network manages full visibility into how applications are performing on the network," Quartier observed. "SD-WANs that deliver this level of visibility can empower IT managers with more application intelligence to see how they can best configure the network to deliver the optimum user experience for each application." Some platforms also provide tools to control end-user experience via mechanisms such as end-to-end QoS and prioritization. An added benefit is that these tools help network managers combat shadow IT scenarios by letting them see all applications on the SD-WAN, not just the ones they knowingly deployed. "This complete network and application performance management lifecycle was not easy to obtain prior to SD-WAN technology," he observed.
6. Fast setups for secure communication
SD-WANs also reduce the time required to set up secure communication services. Secure connections can now be created in just minutes, rather than in days or even weeks. "Authenticated to the network and applications, and managed with policy, employee voice, messaging, video, collaboration, file sharing and more are made available on desktops and mobile devices, driving down operational costs while improving security and availability, and with business continuity built in," Bhatia said.