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The WAN revolution: Wide area network design marches forward

Vive la wide area network revolution! In the new WAN, emerging cloud, software-defined networking and virtualization technologies save time and money while improving performance.

When CB Alliance -- a boutique private equity firm based in New York -- acquired the Latin American operations of business services company Dun & Bradstreet last fall, it inherited an MPLS network that connected nine offices across eight countries. In some places, 40 co-workers shared a single, painfully slow internet connection.

"[We] had to come up with a creative solution to make it all work," said Yoni Cohen, vice president of technology at CB Alliance. The company turned to Cato Cloud, a cloud-based, software-defined WAN (SD-WAN) service from Cato Networks. Using Cato's wide area network design, CB Alliance saw download speeds increase tenfold, and upload speeds increased a whopping 60 times over. Cohen said the new service comes with a 99% service-level agreement guarantee, at about the same price as the company previously paid for its MPLS links.

The advantages of cloud-based SD-WAN go beyond faster internet speeds, he added. Managing smaller sites -- an office with just a couple people, for example, or a single employee working from home -- can be a headache, since it's hard to provide secure access to cloud-based data centers. But the Cato Socket is a single point of presence that can encrypt traffic and access any other branch as well as a data center.

"When we open a branch now, we need nothing; we need one Cato Socket," Cohen said. "We don't need a separate router or a separate server."

That allows CB Alliance to treat all of its branch sites, no matter how small, as equals.

"I can put two people with WAN access in the Dominican Republic [who can] see the same apps on Amazon Web Services as the primary team in Mexico. That's a really big advantage if you have a distributed team or a multibranch team," Cohen said.

The proliferation of mobile devices, the rise of cloud-based services and the advent of software-defined networking are transforming WAN infrastructure. Cohen looks at it as a convergence of different technologies -- and a new phase of wide area network design.

"By combining an SD-WAN, a next-generation firewall and a web interface to bring it all together, it results in a much more fluid and potentially cost-effective and easy-to-maintain network," Cohen said.

Revolution or evolution?

 "The paradigm-definers in SD-WAN share a common trait: They are built from the beginning to treat the WAN as a whole and to virtualize it so that 'the' WAN is actually composed of many distinct virtual overlay WANs," said John Burke, principal research analyst at Nemertes Research. "This is a very different mode of thinking about the WAN and interacting with the WAN than enterprises are used to." 

Not everyone is ready to call this a revolution in wide area network design, however, preferring instead to see it as more of a logical progression within the industry.

"Software-defined networking has been around for a bit, and applying it to WAN is a logical step," said Tom Coughlin, senior member of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers and founder of Coughlin Associates, a data storage consultancy. "It's part of a change and trend in IT in general to go to software-defined [technology], where you can do more management and abstraction than in the past and manage it in more readily visible ways."

But whether you see the changes happening in the WAN as revolution or evolution, the savings can be substantial. Global consulting engineering company GHD, with 8,500 employees across 10 countries, estimated it will reduce global telecom costs by 75% and save roughly $1 million annually by deploying Riverbed SteelConnect, an app-defined SD-WAN solution. To start, GHD intends to hook up 50 new offices onto the company's cloud network.

Smaller companies are getting into the act too. High-performance carmaker Shelby American saves as much as $2,000 per month by connecting its 125 employees to business applications with Silver Peak's Unity EdgeConnect SD-WAN platform.

"Everything we do, minus email, at some point touches our SD-WAN connection," said Richard Sparkman, director of technology, fleet and facilities at Shelby. "We want to stay as close to the leading edge of technology as we can."

For Revation Systems, which hosts call centers in the cloud for banks and hospitals, reliability and security are the biggest wide area network design concerns. Revation delivers a segment of the WAN to one hospital's local area network using a proprietary session-aware router and secure vector routing from 128 Technology that improves load balancing and firewall security.

A secure connection can mean life or death for some of its customers, Revation CEO Perry Price explained. When patients must be moved between hospitals for specialized care, doctors in separate emergency rooms must be able to communicate.

"We want to provide them the highest degree of reliability and have not been able to do that with traditional failover technology," Price said. "The medical industry is kind of behind the curve on migrating apps to the cloud. They have one or two WAN connections, and it's not as resilient as it needs to be."

A hybrid approach

When large companies with multiple offices spread around the country or even across continents juggle complex network configurations, it can be challenging to manage application and network performance. That's especially true as companies grow, requiring updates to the network and changes to service profiles.

"A hybrid approach to the WAN utilizing software-defined products can address these issues by simplifying the configuration at the edge," said Jim Melvin, chief marketing officer and senior vice president of SevOne, a network and infrastructure software vendor. "By defining policies or profiles, applications and services can move easily between costly private MPLS links and broadband links depending on changing needs or restrictions."

By combining an SD-WAN, a next-generation firewall and a web interface to bring it all together, it results in a much more fluid [network].
Yoni Cohenvice president of technology, CB Alliance

There is a catch, though. In some cases, the cost of SD-WAN products and implementation could exceed the value of the WAN itself. Melvin cautioned that companies need to closely monitor traffic decisions and application performance to achieve the full benefits of a hybrid approach.

Burke of Nemertes Research said many companies are frustrated by the cost of MPLS and curious about how a software-defined WAN could save them money.

"Most of the people we speak to have no plans to eliminate MPLS even as they deploy SD-WAN, but it does affect how and where they use MPLS and may have an influence on what kind of services they want on their MPLS connections," he said in a recent webinar.

The last 100 feet

Sujai Hajela, CEO of networking startup Mist and former general manager of the wireless and cloud networking group at Cisco, believes that the next iterations of wide area networking need to optimize application delivery all the way to the end user -- and not stop at the branch level.

He sees this as the next stage of wide area network design, as the focus turns to the response time of an app, measured from the moment users click a button.

"You have to connect the user to the service. If you really want to complete the equation, it's the user to Office 365, not just the branch to Office 365," Hajela said. "The world used to talk about the last mile. Now the world talks about the last 100 feet."

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This was last published in April 2017

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