SD-WANs have been available now for the past five years, but adoption has been light compared to that of the overall WAN market. This should be no surprise, as the technology was immature, and customers were dipping their toes in the water first as a test. Recently, however, there are signs that the market is maturing, which also happens to coincide with an acceleration of the market.
Evidence of the maturation of SD-WANs can be seen in the most recent IHS Markit Campus LAN and WAN SDN Strategies and Leadership North American Enterprise Survey. Exhibit 1 shows that the top drivers of SD-WAN deployments are the simplification of WAN provisioning, automation capabilities. and direct cloud connectivity—all of which require an architectural change.
This is in stark contrast to the approach of early adopters looking for a reduction in opex and capex savings, doing so in the past by shifting to cheap broadband and low-cost branch hardware. The survey data finds that opex savings now ranks tied in fifth place among the purchase drivers of SD-WAN; and that reduced capex is last, indicating that cost savings no longer possess the same level of importance as with early adopters.
The shift in purchase drivers indicates companies are looking for SD-WAN to provide more value than legacy WAN.
With SD-WAN, the “software defined” indicates that the control plane has been separated from the data plane, enabling the control plane to be abstracted away from the hardware and allowing centralized, distributed, and hybrid control architectures, working alongside the centralized management of those architectures. This provides many benefits, the biggest of which is to make WAN provisioning easier.
With SD-WAN, most mainstream buyers now demand Zero Touch Provisioning, where the SD-WAN appliance automatically calls home when it attaches to the network and pulls its configuration down from a centralized location. Also, changes can be made through a centralized console and then immediately pushed out to every device. This can automate many of the mundane and repetitive tasks associated with running a network.
Such a setup carries many benefits—the most important being that highly skilled network engineers can dedicate more time to innovation and less time to working on tasks associated with “keeping the lights on.”
At present, most resources—time and money—associated with running the WAN are allocated to maintaining the status quo. In the cloud era, however, business leaders embracing digital transformation are looking to their IT organization to help drive innovation and leapfrog the competition. SD-WANs can modernize the network, and the technology will tip the IT resource scale back in favor of innovation.
Mainstream buyers set new expectations for SD-WAN
With early adopters, technology innovation is key because adopters are generally tech-savvy buyers and are always looking to use the latest and greatest to gain an edge. With mainstream buyers, other concerns arise. Exhibit 2 from the IHS Markit survey shows that technological innovation now ranks tied in fourth place in what buyers look for from an SD-WAN provider. While innovation is still important, factors such as security, financial stability, and product service and reliability rank higher. And although businesses need a strong technical solution, it cannot be achieved at the expense of security, vendor stability, or quality without putting operations at risk.
It’s not surprising, then, that security turned out to be the overwhelming top evaluation criterion, as SD-WANs enable businesses to implement local internet breakout and cloud on-ramp features. Overall, SD-WANs help make applications perform better, especially as enterprises deploy workloads in off-premises, cloud-service-provider-operated data centers as they build their hybrid and multi-clouds.
Another security capability of SD-WANs is their ability to easily implement segmentation, which enables businesses to establish centrally defined and globally consistent security policies that isolate traffic. For example, a retailer could isolate point-of-sale systems from its guest Wi-Fi network. SD-WAN vendors can also establish partnerships with well-known security vendors that enable the SD-WAN software to be service chained into application traffic flows, in the process allowing mainstream buyers their choice of security technology.
The bottom line
The SD-WAN market is maturing, and the shift from early adopters to mainstream businesses will create a “rising tide” that will benefit all SD-WAN buyers in the WAN ecosystem. As a result, vendors will work to meet calls emphasizing greater simplicity and risk reduction, as well as bring about features that provide an integrated connectivity fabric for enterprise edge, hybrid, and multi-clouds.