What will 2017 mean for SD-WANs?

In 2016 SD-WANs were the hottest topic in networking. That raises an obvious question that I will use the next two blogs to try to answer. That question is: What changes can we expect to see relative to SD-WAN adoption in 2017?

The multi-year SD-WAN adoption model

It is somewhat common in our industry to have the upcoming year be declared to be the “year of” for some new emerging technology or architecture. The implication of that phrase is that in a single year a given technology or architecture will go from where it is widely discussed but not widely implemented, to where it is widely implemented. That type of rapid, ubiquitous adoption rarely if ever happens. Voice over IP (VoIP) is a great example of how a new architecture is typically adopted. Back when VoIP was just beginning to be adopted, members of the industry press and analysts declared that the next year would be the year of VoIP. When that didn’t happen, each subsequent year was declared to be the year of VoIP until eventually VoIP was widely adopted.

I believe that the multi-year VoIP adoption model applies to SD-WANs. By that I mean that there will not be a single “Year of SD-WANs”, but rather a number of “Years of SD-WANs”. One implication of there being a multi-year adoption model for SD-WANs is that if your organization hasn’t yet implemented an SD-WAN it doesn’t mean that you are a laggard. You are not – at least not yet.

2017:  One of the “Years of SD-WANs”

Many network organizations use a formal RFI process to evaluate new technologies and architectures such as SD-WANs. However, a large and increasing number of organizations are avoiding issuing formal RFIs and instead are engaging in somewhat brief conversations with a small number of SD-WAN providers. They hold these conversations prior to moving forward with a production test by either piloting an SD-WAN solution or conducting a POC of one. One of the biggest decisions that a network organization needs to make before moving forward with a production test is to determine if they want to implement an SD-WAN solution on a Do-It-Yourself (DIY) basis or if they prefer to acquire a solution as a managed service. That decision impacts the types of solutions they need to test.

Whether a network organization is piloting an SD-WAN solution or conducting a POC of one, it is important to choose sites that have applications and traffic patterns that are representative of the company as a whole so that the results of the testing are likely to reflect what would happen if the solution was adopted more broadly. The most basic question that the testing has to answer is: Did the solution work? At a minimum that means determining if the solution is able to carry all of the offered traffic from origin to destination. But it means a lot more than that. Part of the promise of most SD-WAN solutions is that they provide sophisticated policy-based functionality that enables companies to save money by reducing their use of relatively expensive MPLS bandwidth in favor of Internet bandwidth. A key goal of the testing is to determine the degree to which the SD-WAN solution realizes this promise.

However, as pointed out in part 1 of The 2017 Guide to WAN Architecture and Design, reducing cost is not the primary factor causing organizations to rethink their WAN.  Security is. That report also pointed out that other key factors driving change in the WAN are providing better support for business critical applications and providing better access to cloud services. So, in addition to determining if the SD-WAN solution can help organizations save on the cost of WAN bandwidth, organizations must use the testing to determine if the solution can provide the functionality necessary for effective security, acceptable application performance and effective access to cloud resources.

What to look for

If the POCs and pilots that have already been conducted or will be conducted in 2017 are successful, then most network organizations will increase the number of their sites that are served by an SD-WAN. As network organizations increase the number of sites, they will continually monitor the solution to ensure that it is performing as expected.

Throughout 2017 a number of factors will determine which SD-WAN solutions will be successful. One such factor is the solution architecture, including where key functionality is performed. Another factor is the range of optimization, security and management functionality the solution provides. And, if the organization is implementing the solution itself, another important factor is the east of implementation and operations. Of course, some organizations are likely to obtain their SD-WAN solution as a managed service. Things to look for in 2017 relative to the development of managed services will be the subject of my next blog.