What are the Benefits & Drivers of SD-WAN Adoption?

There is a tendency in our industry to associate emerging technologies such as Software Defined WANs (SD-WANs) with a very broad, and often unrealistic set of benefits. This tendency tends to add to the hype that surrounds new technologies and it makes it difficult for network organizations to accurately evaluate the viability of adopting these technologies. Over the last year or so both the industry press and analyst groups have chimed in with their thoughts on the benefits of SD-WANs. While I find their opinions on the benefits of an SD-WAN interesting, I am more interested in the answer to a related question: What would drive enterprise organizations to adopt an SD-WAN?

Key benefit: Easing the burden of configuration and provisioning

I recently published a report entitled The 2016 Guide to SDN & NFV: The Use Cases and the Business Case. That report contained the results of a survey in which the survey respondents were asked to indicate the two challenges they thought that an SD-WAN could help their organization respond to. The number one challenge, which was mentioned by roughly a third of the respondents, was easing the burden of configuration and provisioning. This wasn’t surprising because since we first started talking about SDN, easing the burden of configuration and provisioning has been touted as a major benefit, independent of whether SDN was to deployed in the data center, branch office, or WAN.

I don’t want to diminish the importance of making configuration and provisioning easier. However, relatively few network organizations will be able to justify an investment in an SD-WAN solely based on it easing the burden of configuration and provisioning. There are, of course exceptions. One situation that could lead to an exception is if the WAN was experiencing significant outages and there was a strong belief that the outages were due largely to configuration errors that would go away if an SD-WAN was implemented. In a case like this the investment might be able to be justified based on the business value of improved WAN uptime. Another situation that could lead to an exception is if the network organization believed that by automating configuration and provisioning it would free up significant resources. In this case the investment in an SD-WAN might be able to be justified based on the value of the new tasks that would be assigned to these resources.

Key driver: Reducing cost

As mentioned, I wasn’t surprised that the survey respondents were so bullish on an SD-WAN being able to ease the burden of configuration and provisioning. I was, however, surprised that only 15% of the survey respondents indicated their belief that reducing OPEX was one of the top challenges that adopting an SD-WAN could help them with. I was surprised in part because network organizations are always under pressure to reduce the cost of their WAN. I was also surprised because the dynamic load balancing that is so often associated with an SD-WAN has the potential to enable network organizations to either reduce or contain how much they spend on the WAN.

The good, the bad, and the surprising

The good news is that network organizations understand that SD-WANs have the potential to greatly simplify configuration and provisioning. The bad news is that that benefit on its own will seldom be sufficient to justify adopting an SD-WAN.

It is surprising that so few network organizations believe that the adoption of an SD-WAN will lead to significant cost savings or cost avoidance. This is also a bit disappointing because cost savings and/or cost avoidance can frequently be used to justify an IT investment. Hopefully in 2016 we will narrow the gap between the perception and the potential of an SD-WAN to reduce or contain cost.