Road to 2016

Is 2016 the year of the SD-WAN?

A year ago we seldom if ever heard the phrase software-defined WAN (SD-WAN). Now we are continually inundated by articles that discuss SD-WANs and their value proposition. While it is always interesting to hear what industry analysts and press think about a new technology or architecture, I think it is more interesting to hear the response of potential users when asked: What would drive your organization to implement a SD-WAN?

Have we seen this movie before?

Back in 2012 I wrote two Information Week reports on SDN. Those reports, like virtually all of the discussion of SDN in 2012, focused on the applicability of SDN in the data center. The first of the two Information Week reports contained survey data that showed that 35% of the respondents indicated that they expected to deploy SDN in their data centers sometime in the next two years. The second of the two reports contained survey data that showed the primary data center LAN challenges that the survey respondents thought that SDN could be most helpful in overcoming were:

• Improve network utilization and efficiency;
• Automate provisioning and management;
• Improve security;
• Implement network-wide policies.

Because the promised adoption of SDN in the data center hasn’t yet happened, it would be easy to adopt a cynical attitude about SD-WAN adoption. A better approach is to develop a critical attitude that learns from past experiences, but which focuses on the particular factors that are driving SD-WAN adoption.

What do enterprise users say about the drivers of SD-WAN?

In June I published The 2015 State of the WAN Report. The report contained the results of a survey question which asked the respondents to indicate the factors that would drive their company to implement a SD-WAN. The factors that were indicated the most often were:

• Increase flexibility;
• Simplify operations;
• Deploy new functions more quickly;
• Reduce OPEX.

There is a high degree of commonality in the factors that my 2012 and 2015 reports respectively indicated would drive SDN deployment in the data center and in the WAN. Those factors are somewhat soft factors, things like simplifying operations or becoming more efficient and flexible.

What’s the impact of hard dollar savings?

There is a key fact of IT life that impacts any discussion of the adoption of new enterprise IT technologies or architectures. That fact is that:

It takes a long time for any new enterprise technology or architecture to go from when it is first being discussed by the research community to when it has ‘crossed the chasm’ and it has significant deployment.

On example of that fact of IT life is server virtualization. Given the current extent of server virtualization it might be difficult to believe that it took almost a decade from when VMware was founded to when server virtualization crossed the chasm.

I mentioned that a number of the factors driving SDN adoption in the LAN and in the WAN are soft factors. I don’t mean to disparage the importance of those factors. However, in my experience one of the key indicators of the amount of time that a technology or architecture will take to cross the chasm is whether or not adoption that technology or architecture results in significant hard dollar savings.

One way that a SD-WAN enables an organization so to achieve hard dollar savings is that it facilitates the organization being able to replace relatively expensive MPLS circuits with relatively inexpensive Internet circuits; i.e., cost reduction. Another way that a SD-WAN enables hard dollar savings is by making it possible for an organization to avoid implementing any additional MPLS circuits and to respond to future capacity demands by implementing Internet circuits; i.e., cost avoidance.

What’s my take on this?

I think that it will take less time for SD-WAN to cross the chasm than it will for adopting SDN in the data center. In addition to enabling hard dollar savings, another factor that will reduce the amount of time that it will take for SD-WAN to cross the chasm is that all of the discussion of adopting SDN in the data center LAN that has already happened has educated the marketplace on many of the core SDN concepts.

Does that mean that I believe that 2016 is the year of SD-WAN? No, it doesn’t. But it does mean that I believe that 2016 is the year of the SD-WAN RFI and that 2016 will also be the year of the SD-WAN Proof of Concept (PoC).

About the author
Jim Metzler
Jim has a broad background in the IT industry. This includes serving as a software engineer, an engineering manager for high-speed data services for a major network service provider, a product manager for network hardware, a network manager at two Fortune 500 companies, and the principal of a consulting organization. In addition, Jim has created software tools for designing customer networks for a major network service provider and directed and performed market research at a major industry analyst firm. Jim’s current interests include both cloud networking and application and service delivery. Jim has a Ph.D. in Mathematics from Boston University.