The Future of SD-WAN and Fixed Cellular Connections

Fixed cellular services are becoming a critical component of enterprise wide-area networks (WANs).

The Future of SD-WAN and Fixed Cellular Connections
(Credit: Md Eyashin / Alamy Stock Photo)

New market research from Enterprise Management Associates (EMA) recently found that 86% of enterprise IT organizations are using 4G and 5G services to connect corporate sites to a WAN. In the past, companies have used 3G cellular connections as backups to wired WAN links. However, 4G and 5G offer enough bandwidth to be more than backup options.

Among those who are incorporating 4G and 5G into their WANs, 50% told EMA that these wireless connections will be used extensively as primary connections. Another 40% said wireless would be used sparingly for primary connectivity. This data was published in EMA’s new market research, “Enterprise WAN Transformation with SD-WAN: Establishing a Mature Foundation for SASE,” which is based on a survey of 313 WAN professionals.

In regions where reliable wireline bandwidth is unavailable, cellular networks can fill the gap. For instance, some network engineers have told EMA that hybrid work has exposed the poor quality of rural wireline ISPs, forcing them to deploy 5G routers to the homes of customer-facing employees. Rural corporate sites, such as retail stores and bank branches, can also experience a boost in network performance and reliability by switching from outdated wired services to 4G and 5G. Plus, cellular can help organizations connect remote edge sites where wireline connections simply don’t exist, like oil and gas extraction facilities, weather monitoring stations, and international border crossing stations.

Furthermore, cellular connections offer agility, delivering connectivity in hours rather than the weeks or months it takes to provision a business broadband or MPLS circuit. This is especially important to organizations that need to stand up and tear down sites quickly, such as pop-up retail, mobile healthcare clinics and testing sites, and disaster response agencies.

SD-WAN critical for wireless WAN success

EMA believes that software-defined WAN (SD-WAN) will be instrumental to the success of expanded wireless WAN adoption. By incorporating wireless WAN services into SD-WAN, IT organizations can extend SD-WAN capabilities to these cellular connections, such as centralized configuration management, monitoring, and network security.

Moreover, we anticipate that wireless will be part of a hybrid WAN, where IT organizations mix MPLS and wireline broadband with 4G and 5G to maximize bandwidth and resiliency. SD-WAN technology allows enterprises to forward traffic simultaneously across multiple links at a single WAN edge based on quality of service policies, security policies, and network conditions. Most SD-WAN solutions are adept at doing this with wireline circuits, but fewer are particularly strong at incorporating cellular services into a hybrid WAN.

EMA’s research found that 88% of organizations that are incorporating 4G and 5G into their WANs are expecting to integrate this wireless connectivity into their SD-WAN solution. Unfortunately, only 39% are fully satisfied with how their SD-WAN solution provides this integration. Members of cybersecurity teams and network engineering teams were especially likely to have problems with this integration.

Many SD-WAN vendors treat wireless WAN as an afterthought. To add such connectivity, an IT organization must plug a 4G or 5G dongle into their SD-WAN edge devices. In many cases, this dongle only becomes active in a backup failover scenario. Some SD-WAN vendors go further. They incorporate 4G and 5G radios into their edge devices and incorporate wireless connectivity into their hybrid WAN architecture, making it a first-class component of the SD-WAN overlay.

Good integration between SD-WAN and 4G/5G connectivity will be critical in the future. For instance, EMA’s research found that satisfaction with this integration correlates strongly with whether an organization believes its SD-WAN implementation is successful. It also correlates with whether an organization feels that it can easily evolve its SD-WAN implementation into a secure access service edge (SASE) solution, something that many large enterprises are struggling with today.

If your cellular services play a role in your WAN today or in the future, you should make it a part of your SD-WAN strategy now. As you evaluate vendors, look at how they incorporate wireless. If you're already in production with SD-WAN, ask your current vendor what their plans are. If your chosen vendor doesn't align with your wireless strategy, you may be forced to adopt a second vendor. EMA research found that 43% of enterprises have two or more SD-WAN vendors, and the most common driver of multi-vendor SD-WAN adoption is gaps in functionality. For instance, one vendor failed to support wireless, so they added a second vendor in portions of their network that required it.

While adding a second vendor might patch this functionality gap, it will hurt you in the long run. Enterprises that use multiple SD-WAN vendors told EMA that their overall SD-WAN implementations are less successful. Thus, get this wireless issue right the first time. Don’t patch the issue with a second vendor in the future. 

To find out more about EMA’s SD-WAN research, attend our free research highlights webinar, live or on-demand.

Shamus McGillicuddy is a VP of Research, Network Management at Enterprise Management Associates (EMA).

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About the Author(s)

Shamus McGillicuddy, VP of Research, Network Management, at Enterprise Management Associates (EMA)

Shamus McGillicuddy is a VP of Research, Network Management, atEnterprise Management Associates (EMA). Heleads the network management practice at EMA. His practice focuses on all aspects of managing enterprise networks, including network automation, AIOps-driven network operations, multi-cloud networking, and WAN transformation. Prior to joining EMA, Shamus worked as a technology journalist for nearly a decade. He served as the news director for TechTarget's networking publications. He led the news team's coverage of all networking topics, from the infrastructure layer to the management layer. He has published hundreds of articles about the technology and competitive positioning of networking products and vendors. He was a founding editor of TechTarget's website, a leading resource for technical information and news on the software-defined networking industry.

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