What is SD-WAN and how can it help your business?

Meet the technology that’s going to take the headache out of wide area network management

It shouldn't come as a surprise that data has turned every organisation on its head. Driven by a simultaneous explosion in cloud computing, network sophistication and general connectivity, there has been unprecedented growth over the past several years in both the amount of data the average business generates and its ability to capture and analyse that data.

Now, even small businesses rely on mining the data they collect for intelligence and insights. Combine that with the proliferation of cloud-based and internet-connected tools used by companies, and you're faced with a problem. All of that data has to be sent into, out of and through your corporate network, which can lead to bottlenecks in more traditionally-configured networks as businesses grow.

Networking is a notoriously temperamental part of enterprise IT, and is often one of the most time-consuming and frustrating elements to troubleshoot. Configuring business wide area network elements to handle a new service or to address a fault usually involves manually issuing commands to each router in the network individually, which can take weeks or even months depending on the size and geographical locations of the network and the complexity of the change.

One new technology in particular has been mooted as a potential solution to this problem; software-defined wide area networking, otherwise known as SD-WAN. SD-WAN has a number of advantages over older types of wide area network configurations and enterprises are starting to roll it out within their organisations, with a study from network monitoring company SevOne indicating that around half of respondents had active SD-WAN projects in place. 

SD-WAN uses the technologies and principles of cloud computing to make managing WANs far less painful. It achieves this by decoupling the data plane from the control plane and centralising the management and configuration of the WAN itself through a single cloud-based console. This means that bandwidth can be dynamically shared throughout the WAN, and remotely re-allocated rather than having to be reconfigured at the local network level by an on-site engineer. SD-WAN can prioritise bandwidth allocation based on need, elastically scaling a network's bandwidth up and down as needed.

This is the biggest difference between traditional WAN models and SD-WAN: all of the management and configuration of the network can be done remotely from a single management console. This makes provisioning a new branch or office quicker and easier compared to regular WAN. Rather than having to send a network technician down to the site to set up and configure the new office's network in person, the IT team can use their usual management console to set it up according to predefined policies and rules, provisioning and configuring new equipment at the push of a button.

This is a huge timesaver for branch staff as well as sysadmins, as it means that all they need to do when they have a piece of networking equipment that needs replacing is take it out of the box and plug it in. Instead of having to wait for a technician to come and get it set up, it can be onboarded almost instantaneously. This means quicker time-to-value from new IT hardware and less hassle for your staff as they're left to do their jobs without worrying about setting up networking infrastructure.

Business agility also benefits from SD-WAN, particularly when it comes to expansion. Getting the network up and running no longer has to be a bottleneck when opening a new location -- just ship the equipment to the new building, and the aforementioned remote provisioning will ensure that it's set up quickly and painlessly. It aids digital transformation in a similar fashion, allowing businesses to quickly adopt mobile devices, cloud collaboration tools and other transformative technologies without having to put hundreds of hours into making sure the network can support them.

SD-WAN can also help reduce your operational costs in a number of areas. Removing the need for an on-site technician when altering or troubleshooting a network takes travel time and costs out of the equation, making your network engineers more efficient. By the same token, using pre-set templates and profiles means a small, centralised team of network administrators can take care of network operations for a wide geographic area, reducing the need for local technicians.

CIOs can save money on the connections themselves, too; SD-WAN allows them to reduce their reliance on expensive MPLS connections by bundling together bandwidth from standard commercial broadband packages, 4G connections and even satellite links. In addition, the software-defined nature of the technology means that it can be run using commodity hardware, rather than expensive proprietary equipment.

In addition to this, SD-WAN brings huge benefits to the reliability and quality of your connections. Because these networks are centrally controlled, the software can utilise automatic routing and handling rules to ensure that latency-sensitive applications like videoconferencing or VoIP tools always have as much bandwidth as they need to deliver smooth service. What's more, the ability of SD-WAN to group multiple connection types together mean businesses can automatically failover to a secondary line if their main connection fails.

Not all SD-WAN solutions are created equal, however. While other providers can offer some or all of the advantages detailed above, Cisco's SD-WAN products offer all of this plus a number of additional key benefits that other vendors do not. For example, Cisco's SD-WAN toolkit includes advanced, real-time threat intelligence built into the network itself, as well as integrated enterprise firewall capabilities and security analytics. Cisco's products also feature secure boot, runtime prevention and trust anchors, and all software is digitally signed.

Additionally, centralising the management and monitoring of the network means that it's quicker and easier to identify hackers causing anomalous activity, and if they do get in, then micro-segmentation means that you can shut down their access to other parts of the network, preventing lateral movement once they've breached the perimeter.

Moreover, the vManage dashboard centralises network orchestration, monitoring and analytics, while its broad portfolio of SD-WAN hardware -- including its ASR, ISR and vEdge routers - can support multiple deployment configurations, from cloud to branch to edge. Similarly the Cisco Meraki MX Security Appliances managed by the Meraki Dashboard offers a cloud-managed SD-WAN solution.

SD-WAN technology can be deeply transformative for many types of businesses from fast-growing or acquisitive to large, established and complex networks, and Cisco is the ideal partner to help deploy it. As one of the oldest and established networking providers in the world, whatever your business environment, Cisco has the technical expertise and platform capabilities to enable and accelerate your organisation's SD-WAN transformation.

Discover more about Cisco's SD-WAN solution and how it can transform your business

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