Understanding the Value of SD-WAN

John Parker clears the air surrounding the value and application of SD-WAN when it comes to satisfying a remote or hybrid workforce. The bottom line: Understanding how IT affects the business is the key to determining whether SD-WAN can or should still play a role in your organization’s overall IT strategy.

May 11, 2023 by John Parker


Last month Gartner projected a 5.5% growth in IT spending worldwide in 2023, an increase from its January projection of 2.4%. Signs point to a healthy market for software and services, and yet boots-on-the-ground anecdotal evidence suggests a slow-down related to refreshing on-prem infrastructure. Is this simply the long-anticipated death of on-prem, or is there another force at play?

The arrival of COVID-19 to the US in 2020 brought with it a mass migration unlike anything we’ve seen in the workforce, effectively replacing the daily office commute for millions of white collar workers with the short shuffle from the bedroom to the home office. While some have resumed the more traditional commute by car, the IT landscape has changed forever for many of their employers, who are now dealing with a new set of challenges related to supporting a new hybrid (or, gasp, fully remote) labor force.

Given the upheaval, it’s not hard to understand how firms may be hesitant to continue investing in infrastructure aimed at supporting physical office locations when they’re still catching up on satisfying the demands related to the new remote worker who needs, in many cases, to access not only the data center located at one or more of these locations, but multiple cloud applications and resources, and quite likely the broader internet.

Enter the confusion about the relevance of SD-WAN, the primary role of which is connecting company sites with one another. Does SD-WAN still have a role to play when more than half of a typical organization’s workforce isn’t even on site?

What is SD-WAN?

At its core, SD-WAN is the automation behind creating site-to-site tunnels. SD-WAN didn’t replace the technology of firewalls and routers at a network’s edge, but it did eliminate the need for manual configuration of those devices. We can understand SD-WAN a little better by talking about its benefits.

What are the benefits of SD-WAN?

  1. Plug-and-Play. You manage config in a central hub. Plug in your device’s location, get it connected to the internet, and it immediately pulls down the appropriate config and is up and running. Plug-and-play configuration for creating tunnels between sites is a game changer. No more hands on config of every device to deploy a network solution.
  2. Better Visibility. Before SD-WAN, routers deployed at each of multiple locations to enable tunneling between them required yet another tool to enable monitoring of that configuration; to send notifications if, for example, a particular tunnel was up or down, or to report what the traffic going across that tunnel looked like. Now, because of the centralized management of a modern cloud SD-WAN platform, all of this information feeds into and is reported from a central location. If a tunnel goes down and a site becomes inaccessible, the IT team is notified immediately, and can dispatch a technician to troubleshoot proactively without having to wait for an end user to call and report something is wrong with the network.
  3. Greater Efficiency. Because of SD-WAN’s simplicity and ease of operation, resources can be reallocated to other activities, in some cases improving the bottom line.

How do I know if SD-WAN is right in my situation?

For Prescriptive, as a VAR and trusted advisor, understanding a business and IT’s impact on that business allows us not only to right-size a given solution as my colleague Joe Galvan wrote about last month, it also allows us to determine the most appropriate technology and toolsets with which to refresh a company’s infrastructure when it comes time. To gain such an understanding, we leverage our tech-agnostic, standardized discovery approach—just as we would when addressing virtually any IT challenge—to help uncover layers and answer questions, questions which start broad (e.g., How much data are you moving between locations? Are you hitting limits on bandwidth? Where do you want your security layer? How do you want your traffic to flow?) and which become increasingly specialized around a given problem domain as we formulate recommendations. We know that SD-WAN is one of many tools in a toolkit, and like any other tool, it’s not the appropriate solution to every problem.

Where SD-WAN Might Not Work

Some of our customers may be using legacy technologies such as MPLS (Multiprotocol Label Switching), and maybe they want to continue to use it because of an SLA that’s associated with it. We’re quite familiar with the need to maintain legacy solutions when the customer’s business just isn’t in a place where a tool like SD-WAN makes sense. If MPLS is the primary means of moving data between locations, SD-WAN may not have a role to play here.

Other customers have a strong cloud first philosophy. They don’t need inter-site connectivity. Period. Their workers just need to get to the internet to maintain access to their cloud applications and resources. Organizations in this scenario are looking for a true next-gen solution, getting away from tying their business to fixed locations. Whether their employees are at Starbucks, in the office, at home, or wherever, it shouldn’t matter because their business can operate from anywhere. SD-WAN, in this scenario, likely doesn’t provide value.

We do, however, encounter customers with a workforce that, while needing to access the cloud, also needs to access on prem resources at one or more locations. In some percentage of such situations—where the customer is not, for example, tied to a guaranteed delivery requirement, where best-effort internet is good enough—we can potentially purchase two SD-WAN circuits for the price of a single MPLS circuit, and by doing so have redundancy as well as the ability to load-balance traffic.

In Summary

Understanding whether SD-WAN is the right answer to a given problem can involve a good bit of digging in, since every organization is unique in terms of how it manages data, security and IT in general, and SD-WAN doesn’t operate in a vacuum, but rather among other tools and technologies. Call Prescriptive today if you’d like to explore the possibilities of implementing an SD-WAN solution in your enterprise.

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