Our 5-minute guide to SD-WAN

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The rise of the cloud in the enterprise has brought about a sea-change in how IT networks are implemented and managed, laying the foundations for new technologies and systems that help organisations drive down operational costs and improve overall efficiency.

Amongst these new solutions is software-defined Wide Area Networking (SD-WAN) - a concept designed to alleviate the bugbears of traditional WAN setups. It seems to be working, too - with research firm Gartner even predicting that as many as 30% of businesses will have deployed SD-WAN technology across their branches by the end of 2019.

What is SD-WAN?

Software-defined Wide Area Networking - also referred to by its acronym SD-WAN - is a software-based approach to managing the wide area network, allowing businesses and organisations to connect branches and data centres across large geographic areas. It also helps enable the efficient delivery of applications and tools across the whole business.

Where older wide area networks were based on utilising specialist hardware, software-defined WAN technology shifts network control functionality to the cloud. By separating the software from the WAN hardware, this approach provides organisations with the opportunity to improve performance whilst also lowering the operation costs and operational obstacles associated with older, private WAN setups.

Common SD-WAN use cases

Businesses opt for software-defined WAN solutions for a number of reasons, dependent on the needs of the company. For starters, organisations looking to connect branches and other remote sites to the web will often use an SD-WAN approach as it removes the need for certain IT assets at each location - instead connecting to the data centre via the cloud. As a result, this simplifies connectivity and reduces operational costs and overall complexity. SD-WAN setups also streamline the process of implementing and controlling policies, allowing businesses to manage devices from the central console (as opposed to tending to each device separately).

Similarly, organisations take this route in order to swiftly and easily connect multiple devices (often across multiple locations) to cloud-based applications. Using older methods, connecting these devices securely would be a time-consuming process - whereas this software-defined approach can tackle the task in next to no time at all.

Other key uses include the ability to separately manage each individual network user, providing temporary VPN connections, as well as offering the means by which to implement a hybrid WAN solution that partially shifts WAN traffic to the internet.

Pros and cons of SD-WAN

As with all technologies, software-defined wide area networks have both perks as well as downsides. One of the positives that SD-WAN offers businesses is improved security; centralised control and cloud integration allows for fast and efficient handling of threats across multiple locations - unlike more traditional WAN solutions which require each app and device to be managed individually.

This also makes deploying and maintaining applications across a diverse range of devices far simpler, with organisations able to distribute tech to employees without the need to fine-tune each one individually. Device management can also be automated from the system's central hub.

Additionally, taking the software-defined approach means businesses do not require the expensive routing hardware necessary for traditional WAN systems - which, in turn, can help avoid vendor lock-in.

On the whole, SD-WANs offer organisations improved speed and reliability, better network visibility, greater control over their WAN costs, as well as the ability to upgrade easily as and when the need arises. It's also versatile when it comes to integration with modern connectivity technology - being compatible with Wi-Fi, 3G, 4G, LTE, Ethernet, MPLS and more.

For those contemplating making the switch to SD-WAN, there are, of course, a few drawbacks that are worth considering. Firstly, whilst it is easier to connect to the cloud, the nature of the beast means that there is a risk of latency issues, jitter and packet loss from time to time.

The process of integrating legacy systems may also throw up difficulties, whilst businesses that largely rely on traditional phone systems may not stand to gain as much from software-defined WAN. Additionally - as with any service - if a provider is not responsive and efficient in resolving issues, this can also throw up unwanted hurdles and reduce the efficiency of the system.

How to get started with SD-WAN

If your business is looking to make the switch to SD-WAN technology, it's important to first consider a number of important factors. Firstly: how are your employees dispersed? Are they largely centralised in one location? Perhaps the company has multiple offices scattered over a wide geographical area? On top of this, its important analyse how much of the employees' workflow is based in and around the cloud and whether on-site data is the main requirement.

You'll also then need to weigh up the connectivity options that each location possesses - be it Wi-Fi, broadband MPLS etc. - as having two of these capable of meeting the office's data needs will help keep overall cost in check.

Next, you'll need to look into how SD-WAN would be integrated into the business. Can existing WAN hardware be leveraged for software-defined networking? If not, the next step is to consider whether hardware or virtual server software would be necessary at each location.

There are a wealth of SD-WAN providers available - such as Citrix, Cisco, Fortinet and more - and selecting the right one can be the difference in a smooth transition or a problematic one. Take the time to weigh up what each vendor offers, including how they work, communicate and troubleshoot with their clients, as well as the overall cost of service.

Daniel Todd

Dan is a freelance writer and regular contributor to ChannelPro, covering the latest news stories across the IT, technology, and channel landscapes. Topics regularly cover cloud technologies, cyber security, software and operating system guides, and the latest mergers and acquisitions.

A journalism graduate from Leeds Beckett University, he combines a passion for the written word with a keen interest in the latest technology and its influence in an increasingly connected world.

He started writing for ChannelPro back in 2016, focusing on a mixture of news and technology guides, before becoming a regular contributor to ITPro. Elsewhere, he has previously written news and features across a range of other topics, including sport, music, and general news.