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5G and SD-WAN pair is a game changer for branch connectivity

Individually, 5G and SD-WAN promise various benefits for organizations. But, as a pair, 5G and SD-WAN could make the ideal network connectivity option for branch offices.

A game changer for the WAN services market is widespread availability of cellular wireless services -- e.g., 5G -- with data services equal to or faster than wired WAN service options, such as MPLS or internet broadband.

When combined with software-defined WAN (SD-WAN), high-speed 5G services provide distributed organizations with improved reliability, rapid provisioning and high-speed bandwidth. And, when SD-WAN combines with fast cellular wireless connectivity, it enables a new WAN architecture with significant benefits to distributed enterprises. SD-WAN introduces IT leaders to new wireless service providers that could complement or, in some cases, replace existing wired services.

Many organizations already use 4G LTE at branch locations -- e.g., retail stores and restaurants -- to ensure high availability and reliability in the event of slowdowns or downtime in primary wired circuits. LTE's rapid provisioning time is ideal for pop-ups and other temporary locations.

Cellular wireless connectivity offers additional WAN connectivity options to organizations with remote branch offices. Competition between leading wireless operators -- e.g., AT&T, Verizon and T-Mobile -- around new 5G services will drive new unlimited data plans to organizations that require higher bandwidth at branch locations with fixed budgets.

5G data services can be an ideal partner for SD-WAN at-home deployments.

5G advancements and challenges

Many hyped 5G services have started to offer new features to enterprise IT teams. 5G promises a number of advancements, including speeds over 1 GB, low latency and network segmentation. While some advancements require future improvements -- for example, network slicing requires a new wireless core system -- existing 5G networks offer equivalent and, in some cases, better performance than comparable wired internet offerings.

5G networks deliver real-world speeds over 100 MB, which is sufficient bandwidth for most branch office requirements. Over the next several years, 5G radio deployments will drive bandwidth capabilities well beyond 1 GB with particularly low latency. This will provide plenty of cellular wireless capacity to most branch WAN requirements and, over time, provide significant competition in the $40 billion managed business services market.

Despite the hype around 5G, it is relatively early in its deployment cycle. 5G modems are expensive and aren't widely available -- depending on the specific service or spectrum the wireless operator offers. 5G coverage in the U.S. is limited to major metro areas, and operators are still working toward cost-effective or unlimited data plans.

In addition, 5G network slicing, which offers guaranteed quality of service (QoS), will not be widely available for one to two years.

5G and SD-WAN benefits
Among other benefits, 5G and SD-WAN together promise reliable branch office connectivity.

5G and SD-WAN

SD-WAN is becoming the standard technology to enable organizations to intelligently steer traffic over multiple WAN links. It improves internet link security and provides higher reliability, which enables organizations to significantly increase WAN bandwidth capacity.

High-speed 5G links provide IT organizations with another great WAN option to add to their SD-WAN-driven architecture. 5G links are simple and quick to provision and provide link diversity to protect against cable cuts, such as backhoe-caused outages.

SD-WAN technology continues to advance its breadth of functionality -- e.g., for LAN and Wi-Fi -- as well as its native security and traffic management capabilities. As SD-WAN suppliers introduce software-defined branch services, they can offer end-to-end traffic visibility from device to LAN to WAN to cloud environment.

Examples of 5G and SD-WAN services

The rise in the number of employees who work from home or mobile locations will drive demand for 5G. 5G data services can be an ideal partner for SD-WAN at-home deployments -- either as a primary circuit for broadband replacement or as a complement to the existing broadband service for redundancy and QoS.

Three real-world examples of cellular and SD-WAN service pairings are the following:

  1. VMware-VeloCloud. VMware-VeloCloud deployed software at an insurance firm in the U.S. with more than 10,000 sites, each with a wired -- cable, DSL or fiber -- link along with active-active LTE links.
  2. Citrix. Citrix deployed its SD-WAN service at a large Indian insurance firm. It has over 900 sites with high-speed 4G LTE and internet in an active-active connectivity mode for high reliability.
  3. Cradlepoint. Cradlepoint deployed its NetCloud service with dual cellular wireless connectivity at a large U.S. retailer with over 1,400 stores. Dual wireless services offer high reliability to connect point-of-sale systems, scanners, security cameras and PCs.

Recommendations for IT leaders

In most SD-WAN deployments, organizations use cellular wireless -- mainly 4G -- as a backup circuit and only when the primary wired connections suffer from performance degradation or outages. As 5G services become widely available and vendors price unlimited data plans attractively, wireless will become a strong alternative option for SD-WAN connectivity.

Some leading SD-WAN services are integrating 4G and 5G services with good results. IT leaders should consider 5G for pop-up or temporary locations and as part of a primary circuit options package -- alongside MPLS and internet broadband -- as unlimited data plans become available.

Next Steps

SD-WAN explained: The ultimate guide to SD-WAN architecture

This was last published in June 2020

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