Channel Partners Should Make Best of the Opportunities in SD-WAN

Channel Partners Should Make Best of the Opportunities in SD-WAN

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MSPs or Managed Service Providers play a key role in transitioning customers to software-defined WAN (SD-WAN) technologies, which enable lower-cost WANs using broadband resources. This has become a hot area today and is presenting great opportunities for the channel partner community today. 

While more companies are shifting to cloud-based applications, legacy wide area networks (WAN) are struggling to provide the required levels of service that customers need to support multiple locations, and remote workers. The answer is simple: Software-defined WAN (SD-WAN) technologies allow companies to build lower-cost WANs using broadband resources. This improves the speed and efficiency of moving data to the cloud and between different locations. 

According to IDC, the SD-WAN market is growing at a 70% CAGR and should reach $8 billion within the next three years. However, most companies don’t fully understand the technology. An MSP with expertise in this space can create some lucrative opportunities to help clients struggling with connectivity and latency issues. That opportunity is only going to grow as more applications move to the cloud.

Addressing Network Pain Points

IT Leaders talk about networking challenges with their current WAN set-up. Complexity of IT systems, cloud performance and performance between locations are some of the most significant problems encountered by MSPs today. SD-WAN can address these pain points as it effectively decouples the networking hardware from the means of controlling it and virtualizing the WAN to make it easier to configure and to route traffic. Further, SD-WAN makes it easier to manage security policies and bandwidth from a central location, while making it possible to monitor and prioritize traffic for specific applications.

There are also some clear benefits in terms of both performance and cost when it comes to SD-WAN. Organizations in the survey estimate they could save more than $1.3 million on MPLS networking costs within the first 12 months of using SD-WAN. IT leaders are fast deploying SD-WAN at the majority of their sites, and half are in the process of doing so or will do so within the next year.

Security Is a Top Investment Priority

When it comes to selecting an SD-WAN solution, security is on the top of mind. Organizations leveraging an SD-WAN solution should install security devices at each location. There are a variety of configurations available, and many end users are unsure which types of devices to deploy. Disruptive innovation in infrastructure is on the rise and nowhere is that more evident than in the SDN movement. But while much of the SDN discussion has focused on the data center, the better initial use case might be in the WAN. 

Although much of Wall Street has focused on the ‘sexy’ datacenter aspect of SDN, interest in SD-WAN has increased meaningfully and we believe SD-WAN could experience more rapid adoption than datacenter overlay technologies. SD-WAN can dramatically reduce the cost of WAN deployments by enabling cheaper bit rates in both CAPEX and OPEX (i.e., less cost for the same bandwidth or more bandwidth for the same cost as compared to MPLS) and less overprovisioning for the same SLAs.

What’s more, the WAN tends to be more discreet in terms of organizational teams and the technology stack itself, meaning organizations can move faster to embrace SD-WANs. So, if you’re interested in building a WAN that is better, faster and cheaper, there are some key issues to consider. What WAN issues today would encourage a company to start exploring SD-WAN options? There are many challenges and limitations with the predominant MPLS-based layer 3 VPN service offerings that have become the standard connectivity solution for many Fortune 500 companies over the past 15 years. Although these solutions have served the enterprise well in a time of limited options, the market is opening up and ripe for transformation.

Previous attempts to scale VPN overlays have not found their way to mainstream, due to protocol scalability limitations and the sheer configuration complexity required for a reasonably sized enterprise network. As more and more critical business applications—such as voice, contact center and storage applications— converge to an IP transport, a high-performing and ultra-resilient (self-healing) IP WAN fabric will become essential to the business.

The best initial use case for SDN is in the wide area network

If you’re interested in building a WAN that is better, faster and cheaper, there are some key issues to consider. Let’s examine the WAN challenges today:

Cost: The access cost component for MPLS services provided by Tier I service providers continues to be a challenge. Global and national providers are at the mercy of their wholesale relationships with the local exchange carriers and tend to pass these costs to the consumer, with a potential mark-up. Additional cost components include everything from the number of routes, multicast support and QoS requirements, all of which further inflate costs.

Scale: It seems the MPLS provider’s control plane and forwarding information base (FIB) tables are hitting scale limitations, causing providers to police the number of routes they are willing to accept from a customer. For the enterprise, this means more front-end negotiation, risk of hitting these policed thresholds, and ultimately the risk in dropping routes, as well as the cost the SPs incur (and potentially pass on) with the constant churn of hardware and perpetual maintenance to support the increased demand in Provider Edge (PE) and backbone capacity.

Service quality: WANs today are not application aware, nor do they consider different application performance thresholds. Soft failures/regional brown-outs can have catastrophic impact on real-time applications.

SLAs are only as good as the customers’ ability to measure these and hold the providers accountable. Whether it is latency, jitter, packet loss or the absolute number of outages allowed per month, all of this requires significant management overhead. Although sourcing teams and enterprise service owners are focused when negotiating a predetermined financial penalty for a specific SLA breach, often these breaches render more material impact to the business, which cannot be compensated by collecting an SLA credit. How does an enterprise protect its net promoter score for a customer call they may have dropped, due to a regional outage?

Service provider maintenance is sometimes uncoordinated, resulting in unplanned business impact. Time to detect failures and restore service is often elongated. Both hard down and soft failure detection requires synchronization between the service provider’s control plane and the customer’s control plane (bifurcation of control planes). Customers can tune the edge timers; however, they remain dependent on the provider’s backbone to detect, hold down, withdraw and prorogate the updates. This holds true for dual-carrier MPLS architectures as well, where customers rely on carrier A to withdraw the associated prefix in a hard outage situation, so the disparate topologies can converge and restore the session path. It gets worse with a brown-out or regional outage, where carrier A would never withdraw the prefix, yet causes application degradation.

Which Way to the Cloud-Ready WAN?

Cloud applications now generate the majority of enterprise traffic due to the massive adoption of Software-asa-Service (SaaS) and Infrastructure as-a-Service within their environments.

IT is now hitting boundaries as their traditional WANs were designed to solely transmit data between branches, headquarters and data centers. A Software Defined WAN (SD-WAN) can flexibly connect your users to applications—no matter where they reside, boosting performance, increasing visibility and control while delivering savings of up to 90%.

Security: There is no inherent data plane encryption. Some customers elect to implement over-the-top IPsec, which tends to impede the benefits of MPLS by decreasing overall scale, while adding an additional fault domain layer. Additionally, this requires distributed configuration steps for setup and key management.

Visibility: The customer’s Layer 3 routing control plane is outsourced to the MPLS service provider, as customers are required to inject their remote site routing table into the SP’s network, either statically or dynamically. At this point, the customer loses visibility with very limited access to the provider edge, not to mention the backbone.

Managing multi-homed default route selection in a single VRF requires the customer to provision site-of-origin (SOO) via a route map on the provider edge, with limited means to validate the configuration / implementation. This type of manually steering of traffic can take days, if not weeks to implement. The risk: outbound traffic destined to the closest exit point could suddenly transition to another multi-homed exit point causing latency and application lag.

Most SPs prohibit SNMP access to the premise equipment for proactive alerting and instrumentation, limiting visibility into what is happening in the MPLS “underlay.”

Agility/flexibility: Time to provision is typically elongated and unpredictable when compared to the consumer market. How is it possible for consumers to provision 10 to 250Mbps service to their home in a few days or weeks, yet it takes a corporate network administrator typically 60-90 days to get similar bandwidth provisioned? This is the classic and rigid LEC problem, represented by the wholesale dependency retail service providers have when delivering services to the enterprise customers.

The retailers are often dependent on the LECs outside their own territory. This challenge becomes exacerbated when trying to procure ‘diversity’ for multiple circuits. There’s no inherent application-based path selection to facilitate routing cloud-based application access via the local Internet.

For these WAN challenges, what SDN promises? In short, the SD-WAN can enable customers to take back control from service providers, while creating new market opportunities for those service providers.

If customers could create SD-WANs that separate the underlying transport from a software-based, overlay control plane on controller(s) owned by the customer, it would empower them, among other things, to centrally manage security policies and make application-based routing decisions dynamically and based on application performance criteria—all independent of the underlying transport.

The underlay just becomes a set of common IP circuits with next hop reachability. This opens the door for customers to go direct to the local market (LEC, MSOs, etc) to procure more cost-effective bandwidth with the right mix of transport technologies and SLAs required for the business, without compromising or fragmenting the logical routing topology.

Consider a company that has business process outsourcing, business-to-business, internal or other WAN constructs, which increase complexity and cost. What if a network administrator could build an underlying network with various transport providers and glue the transport together with a unified overlay providing centralized policy management via a controller to create logical segmentation for multi-tenancy? Essentially, this would drive up the efficiency rate, creating a more cost-effective network.

The benefits become exponential when you couple an SD-WAN strategy with converging and centralizing/regionalizing services such as SIP voice, IP Contact Center and other services, which are often distributed and reside on edge CPE today (DSPs, SRST).

Addressed Challenges with SD-WAN:

Cost: An SD-WAN overlay enables customers to regionalize their transport and go directly to the LEC markets to reduce the double margin effects inherent to the traditional national/ global provider model. Ethernet services enable new commercial off-the-shelf CPE options.

Scale: By separating the underlying transport and the control plane with software based overlay/controller(s) owned by the customer, it reduces the dependency and scale limitations with the carriers. Essentially, the carrier becomes ‘next hop reachability’ via IP circuits, with an intelligent overlay managed by the customer to orchestrate the enterprise routing. The scale becomes directly proportional to the SDN controller. 

Service quality: WANs today are not application-aware, nor do they consider the application performance thresholds. Soft failures/regional brown-outs can have unpredictable and adverse impact to real-time applications.

Application or performance aware routing is a game-changing feature that enables customers to monitor the performance of the underlay and make real-time dynamic routing decisions by application. 

This dynamic detection and convergence capability will improve the overall service quality by avoiding manual intervention and troubleshooting, while increasing a customer’s probability to hit internal SLAs, as well as responding to unplanned carrier maintenance. This type of dynamic performance awareness has the potential to decrease the reliance on hop-by-hop QoS policy management as well.

Security: Many SD-WAN products come standard with data plane encryption and control plane security. Most enterprise security teams have stopped asking for internal WAN encryption due to cost, scale and manageability challenges. SD-WAN is an opportunity to provide a consistent authentication and transport encryption policy regardless of the underlying transport mechanism or service provider. Central policy management and segmentation now become a reality, and multi-tenancy increases the efficiencies of the underlying transport. ‘Who are you’ and ‘what do you need access to’ are based on user policy.

Visibility: A carrier-agnostic approach with full visibility and unification of the routing table, inclusive of a multi-home default route scenario. Services such as QoS and multicast will be inherent to the customer controlled overlay. Alerting and management will be innate, enabling the underlay performance visibility.

Agility/flexibility: Customers can leverage non-traditional transport for connectivity, such as cable MSOs, broadband and/ or business-class internet, LTE and 4G to improve delivery time frames. Optimized path selection for cloud services, such as web conferencing, Office365, HR (workday) and other cloud-based apps via local internet links. Service chaining and NSFV become a reality through logical steering of traffic for load balancing and firewall services.

Looking at the Future

The technology is very close, both from the traditional equipment suppliers and early stage start-ups. However, vendors are taking different approaches for prioritizing the features they will implement, and in developing their product roadmaps. Many of the approaches will overlay Internet transport in the long run. 

The timing seems appropriate, especially given the maturation that has taken place with real-time services and codecs moving from narrow band to wide band, driving up the tolerance for Internet performance characteristics.