WAN's Inevitable Influence

Mark Horbal, CIO & CTO, SpringBIG
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Mark Horbal, CIO & CTO, SpringBIG

The Impact on WANs is Inescapable

The two most significant trends in computing today are the transformation of traditional computer applications with a footprint on a local machine to SaaS web applications and the parallel migration of computing resources to the cloud. These two trends, and their continued acceleration, are fundamentally changing the computing landscape.  The impact on Wide Area Networks (WANs) is inescapable. The obvious impact is that many of the systems or LANs traditionally interconnected with WAN infrastructure are disappearing into the cloud, opening up an array of new options from cloud providers, especially Amazon AWS and Microsoft Azure.

While the cloud options may be available to many businesses, others such as manufacturing and retail sectors must maintain significant physical computing infrastructure. In these cases, there are also new opportunities to migrate to new Software-defined WANs (SD-WANs). A number of strong offerings in this space, from companies like Cisco, Riverbed, Silver Peak, Aryaka and others, offer a new improved availability and fault tolerance, while potentially lowering both CAPEX and OPEX.

“We can assume that a number of players in the WAN space will reinvent themselves as software solutions”

While trends and paradigm shifts in the WAN space abound, the requirements and KPIs are really the same and can be encapsulated into one sentence: “How fast can I securely and reliably move data in my network and at what cost?” Clearly, this is highly nuanced, so a more specific list of requirements follows. Each of these is a subject unto itself:

• Guaranteed bandwidth
• Security
• Availability—Five Nines?
• Remote Monitoring/Management?
• CAPEX and OPEX
• Useful Lifetime of Hardware
• Scaling considerations

Assessing the Landscape

Clear understanding of the end game must precede any implementation. The biggest challenge when implementing new or upgrading existing WANs is that the landscape is changing rapidly, and the end game may not be clear for some of us. Nonetheless, the general approach consists of (1) Assessing the current status, (2) Defining the goal—this is the end-game, and (3) Choosing the best solutions to bridge the gap between the two. Failing to do any of these three things well usually leads to failure—so “Plan N-times, execute once.”

It’s at least somewhat useful to look at some example strategies:

• If the nature of your business forces you to have much of your computing infrastructure based on physical servers and networking, or security considerations prevent a cloud migration, you can continue with traditional WAN approaches.  You also have the option to move to one the SD-WAN providers and move your encrypted traffic to the cloud. This may result in improvements to availability and lower costs, while assuring ability to scale when needed.

• If, like many business, you are in some stage of migration to the cloud, architect your solutions in a way that uses cloud-based networking as much as possible.  Unless your target architecture is a hybrid physical/virtual, limit investing in temporary WAN solutions, focusing on the end-game as much as possible. If the end-game is hybrid, choose WAN solutions that offer low cost, high availability, scaling and long lifecycles. SD-WANs should be a strong consideration.

• If the WAN requirements are new, consider SD-WANs.

Maximizing Availability and Scalability

The right cache of WAN technology and hardware is very scenario-specific.  In very broad terms, organizations should seek to minimize the CAPEX outlay, especially if cloud migration is on the docket. Failure to do so can result in over-investment and poor ROI, as traffic becomes intra-cloud.

If the long-term goal is a mix of physical and cloud-based infrastructure, the WAN technology choices should favor could-based WANs, in order to maximize availability and scalability. The number of solutions that offer enhanced security is increasing, hence this issue if rapidly going away.

Reinventing WAN as Software Solutions

As the number of virtualized computing/data centers grows, the networking associated with them will, in a large part, move as well. While opportunities for the hardware WAN vendors will likely diminish in the end user space, they will continue to exist with those businesses that operate hybrid cloud/physical data centers. We can assume that a number of players in the WAN space will reinvent themselves as software solutions.

Most CIOs today are closely watching the rapid trends in SaaS, NaaS and Cloud technologies.  While their focus must be on leveraging the new technologies to increase availability and scalability while lowering cost, they need to be vigilant and cautious in the areas of security, potential business disruption and “bleeding edge” risk.  This translates into a three part plan: (1) Resolutely execute a well-planned migration strategy (2) Continually asses and manage risk, throttling if necessary, and (3) Plan and execute all new development with the end-game in sight.

The cost perspective is nontrivial and therefore requires analysis of costs and tradeoffs. For example, a remotely managed SD-WAN can reduce internal MPLS networking support staff. A scalable SD-WAN may offer a better cost/bandwidth ratio than an oversized traditional WAN channel. Similarly, SD-WAN solutions may decrease CAPEX expenditures and eliminate hardware obsolescence costs.

Software Base: The Road Ahead

The last few years have witnessed many disruptive changes in the computing landscape. While the speed with which new technologies are being adopted into what we consider technology mainstream, we can make some educated guesses about the future of WANs. We can probably assume that intra-cloud WANs will be software based. The advent of SD-WANs will give rise to new offerings that allow physical infrastructures to efficiently connect to the cloud-based transport. Traditional WAN providers will introduce software-only solutions and partially shift their sales focus from traditional business end-users to cloud-providers themselves. We will certainly see improvements in security and encryption, bandwidth and cost.