When it comes to IT projects — be they WAN or any other domain — there’s a general rule of thumb that should be applied but often is not: if the solution is more complicated than the problem, then don’t do it. With many customers I’ve talked to about SD-WAN, the solution has indeed been more complicated than the legacy WAN they were running before. Most agree the network is more agile but operationally more difficult to run.
SD-WAN was supposed to solve multiple problems, including lowering the cost of running a network compared to the traditional manual methods of the past. The new WAN model in would usher in the era of the network taking a DevOps approach of continuous innovation and change through better automation.
Lack of SD-WAN Standards Limits Growth
One of the challenges that has surfaced is that there is a definite lack of standardization to the network. In the application world, most organizations standardize on a handful of platforms and leverage few programming languages. Some platforms or languages may not be “standards” in the truest definition, but they have enough acceptance that they become de facto standards.
The application environment is somewhat orderly, where the network is more like a random, chaotic system comprised of purpose-built, proprietary platforms. Historically, these custom platforms offered the best price performance and breadth of features required to power a network. Every device had its own configuration syntax, supporting tools, and APIs. While inconvenient, this model wasn’t business-limiting, as network changes weren’t made all that often, and when they were network managers typically had long lead times to execute the changes.
However, the digital era has made speed an imperative. Business leaders want to move quickly, and that means network managers must be able to change the network just as fast, making programmability and orchestration critical. This is where the ‘wild west’ model is failing organizations. One vendor’s APIs can be significantly different than another’s. Even within a single vendor, the APIs used to configure one product family might be different than the APIs for another product from the same provider.
This challenge isn’t getting any simpler either. Software-only solutions, Network Functions Virtualization (NFV) and other new architectures are expanding the number of network services that need to be configured, changed, and maintained. The current model of building networks with proprietary interfaces with an increasing number of services will result in an exponentially more complex environment.
A Rising Tide Lifts All Boats
This problem can only be solved one way and that is through better standardization. I understand why some vendors may not want to standardize, particularly the ones with significant market share. The fear is that by creating a level playing field, other vendors may take some of that share.
However, standardization will create a “rising tide” where more customers use more network services more often because they are easier to implement. In a standardized environment, vendors will push each other to be better and more innovative which, in turn, gives customers more incentive to deploy even more services creating an even faster rising tide.
Vendors that don’t embrace standards aren’t just limiting competitor opportunities — they are also stifling their own growth. That’s bad for the industry and customers. The best, fastest way to get customers both large and small to embrace SD-WAN is for the industry to embrace standards. Then SD-WAN can fulfill the potential we all know it has.