Chronic traffic jams call for a road expansion, and over time, a two-lane highway needs to be widened to four lanes. Likewise, an enterprise wide area network (WAN) must be improved to eliminate bottlenecks and ensure the smooth, swift travel of growing amounts of data traffic. One of the emerging ways to accomplish that is with software-defined networking (SDN).
SDN is becoming increasingly linked with the WAN, because software improves the efficiency, capacity, and security of existing WANs in order for them to meet the growing demands for application-specific cloud and mobile computing. SDN delivers these enhancements to enterprise WANs without the need to add expensive hardware upgrades to the physical network, ensuring security.
As the advantages of SDN become more evident, network administrators are coming to realize they must take necessary steps to use this new technology to improve outdated WAN environments.
There are four main issues with the WAN today:
- WANs are very complex to operate — and any change means touching tens of thousands of devices, which is a manual process and prone to error. Maintaining WANs can also be laborious if technicians have to travel to branches — “truck rolls” — for each upgrade. If yours is a large retail chain, for example, that can be an expensive road trip.
- WAN maintenance has become a significant drag on IT budgets, costing billions of dollars for customers, as they pay for more expensive circuits provided by the telecom providers.
- WAN is a scarce resource and currently cannot accommodate the bandwidth to support new applications. There is an opportunity to take a quantum leap and for networks in general to become more application-aware.
- Security is a major concern, targeting branch environments.
While SDN has initially been deployed in the data center, it is only now being considered for the WAN.
WAN as a Service Delivery Platform
SDN in the WAN can have a particularly positive impact on network efficiency to branch or remote offices. As more applications are delivered via the cloud, workers in the branches can access the apps they need via the Internet rather than via a direct link to their data center — also known as multiprotocol label switching (MPLS) — from service providers, which are much more expensive than a broadband connection to the Internet. Going forward, the WAN, with the help of SDN, can evolve into a hybrid of MPLS and broadband Internet access.
There may be some traffic that needs to travel between the branch and the data center over MPLS because of high security requirements — HIPAA or PCI compliance, for example — while other traffic can travel over broadband. A hybrid WAN that is supported by SDN allows network operators to move traffic through one pipe or another as conditions warrant. Furthermore, moving more traffic over the Internet instead of via MPLS can reduce costs and deliver a payback in less than a year in some cases.
But the advantages of SDN go beyond the lower cost of the connections and into areas such as greater visibility and control over the WAN, improved application performance, and an overall ability for network operators to make changes dynamically in order to fix problems that may occur from time to time.
Tomorrow’s WAN and IT Staffing Implications
SDN also gives network administrators a way to adjust configurations or add a new service, such as HD video conferencing, from one management console that applies the change to all client devices across the enterprise. This capability can also adjust security settings, improve firewalls and intrusion prevention systems and increase WAN acceleration.
To be sure, bringing SDN into the WAN environment will have some staffing implications for IT departments. You may have seen some companies that are adopting SDN to bring in more people with programming skills to add to the existing IT team. If one looks at the network more programmatically, they can improve automation networkwide and deliver it at scale. As the WAN moves more toward this kind of services delivery platform, enterprises can expand the programming staff they already have in the data center to the WAN environment as well. Over time, the networking team will be more in touch with the compute and virtualization world.
It’s becoming clear that the WAN as it exists today will not be able to handle growing amounts of traffic demanded of it. But software-defined networking can improve performance by shifting traffic to lower coast broadband connections and away from higher cost direct links between data centers and branches. SDN also gives network administrators the tools to adjust network performance as needed, add services, and operate their network more dynamically than without it.