Charles Darwin Would Have Embraced The Software-Defined WAN

DarwinIt was Darwin who claimed that it’s not the strongest that survive, but the species that are the most adaptable to change. The world of networking is no different. The network, particularly the WAN, hasn’t changed much over the past couple of decades, as there really wasn’t a requirement to change, but there has been a tremendous amount of activity recently in the evolution towards the software-defined WAN. This is a signal that change is near and it’s time for network managers to adapt.

Over the past few weeks we’ve seen software-defined WAN startups CloudGenix and Viptela launch their companies and try and bring “software-defined” principles to the WAN. This week at Cisco Live, Cisco’s user conference, Glue Networks announced their Glueware orchestration engine for the Cisco WAN.

At Cisco Live, Glue Networks will be demonstrating Glueware with WAN analytics in the Cisco ACI booth. Glueware is able to interface with the Cisco network through the APIs in ACI to effectively software enable Cisco based WANs. Glueware provides analytics, visualization, verification, and change management capabilities to WANs. Glueware can automate the provisioning of many of the Cisco WAN optimization techniques such as QoS and performance routing (PfR) and then change the network according to predefined policies. There are a number of systems than monitor Cisco networks, but Glue is one of the few vendors that can actually take action on events that are triggered by the monitoring and visualization tools.

Over the years, Cisco has added a number of features to its routers to improve the performance of the WAN. However, some of these features, such as PfR, can be difficult to provision if you’re not a CLI guru. Even for the CLI masters out there, errors in WAN configuration are common — in fact, such config errors are the most common cause of downtime today (37%), according to ZK Research.

The cause of errors is an interesting exercise in causality. Because many businesses don’t have great visualization tools, the only way outages or problems are discovered are when users call. In fact, my research shows that about 75% of problems are actually reported by the user and not the IT department. This puts the network operations team in “firefighting” mode, where changes are made to the network quickly, sometimes breaking something else and often not documented at all. All of this makes adhering to a “gold” configuration difficult — if not impossible — to maintain over a long period of time. So the lack of visibility drives change-management problems, which in turn exposes the lack of visibility even more.

So, if the network operations team had better visibility tools, then they could better predict when problems would occur and proactively make changes to avoid them. If the changes to the WAN could then be automated and orchestrated with events and triggers in the network, the WAN could then shift to more of an autonomic system that can do things like change QoS settings on a per-application basis in real time.

That’s the basis of what Glue Networks is trying to accomplish with Glueware. In fact, Glue Networks can actually “handshake” with the enterprise data center even over the service provider network. These capabilities become increasingly important as businesses continue to shift workloads to private and public clouds, and as hybrid environments become the norm.

So let’s go back to Darwin. While the thought of orchestrating WAN analytics with configuration changes may seem a bit of a leap of faith for network managers and is something they may push back on, I do believe it’s a necessary part of the survival of the WAN manager. The environment is changing so fast today that those network managers, even the strongest ones, need to look at finding new ways of doing things in order to manage the WAN. You may be the biggest and baddest CLI guru out there but if the world moves to automated systems and you don’t, you may go the way of that high level OS/2 guy that you knew when you started your career. It’s time to change and embrace the software defined WAN.