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7 key SD-WAN trends to evaluate in 2021

As SD-WAN continues to mature in 2021, the technology is expected to improve in its support for integrated remote access, automation and multi-cloud connectivity.

Software-defined WAN remains a critical technology to enhance UX, improve security and provide connectivity to cloud-based applications.

As SD-WAN matures, its scope is broadening to provide options for remote access, support IoT connectivity, link to Secure Access Service Edge (SASE) architectures and offer software-defined branch (SD-branch) functionality. It continues to improve in its ability to link to leading IaaS and SaaS applications and in overall management and orchestration capabilities -- specifically cloud-based intelligence, automation, ease of installation and problem resolution.

SD-WAN in 2020

SD-WAN revenues continued to grow in 2020, but growth was slowed by the effects of the pandemic. Some organizations have slowed IT investments, especially in branch locations that currently don't have many -- if any -- employees coming to the office. A significant number of branch locations are represented by verticals that were highly affected by the pandemic, including hospitality, travel, retail and restaurants. This will also affect some organizations' plans to upgrade branch IT with SD-WAN.

The SD-WAN market continued to consolidate in 2020, with HPE acquiring Silver Peak and Palo Alto Networks buying CloudGenix. We are now in the market phase where large network, IT and security suppliers provide the vast majority of SD-WAN technology.

SD-WAN trends to watch for in 2021

Below are seven key areas of SD-WAN development enterprise network teams should watch for in 2021.

1. Integrated remote access now a requirement

The events of 2020 have proven that the majority of knowledge workers can productively work at home. Going forward, Doyle Research expects that tens of millions of workers will continue to work remotely at least half of the work week -- to eliminate their commute, better fit their schedules or get actual work done.

Many IT organizations are now prioritizing the need to provide streamlined, secure access for these employees. Current VPN technology is not a good long-term strategy. IT organizations are looking for remote connectivity options that are integrated with ongoing security, such as SASE architectures.

SD-WAN offers comprehensive, if pricey, technology to address the home office challenges of reliability, latency and performance. It also offers the security to prevent malware and phishing attacks that can lead to sensitive data loss. Many SD-WAN providers are incorporating zero-trust network access (ZTNA) to further improve their remote access capabilities.

2. SD-WAN meets SASE

The term SASE -- denoting the convergence of network and security functionality in the cloud -- was all the rage in 2020. Dozens of network and security suppliers, including most of the primary SD-WAN vendors, now claim to deliver SASE functionality.

At this point, SASE is more of a future architecture than product, with most existing offerings having shortcomings in some aspects of the long list of SASE features. Most IT and security organizations continue to rely on their existing strategy of layering a range of security products -- e.g., next-generation firewall, application delivery controller, secure web gateway, cloud access security broker (CASB), identity, security information and event management (SIEM) and ZTNA -- to provide protection for the networks, applications and data.

For 2021, SD-WAN suppliers will continue to enhance and broaden their network security offerings to include remote access, ZTNA, CASB and SIEM functionality. They will also improve their ability to set uniform security policies across remote connectivity, branch, LAN and WAN access. These offerings are likely to be added to installed network security strategies -- rather than replace them -- especially in large organizations.

SD-WAN trends in 2021
See what developments are on the horizon for SD-WAN technology in 2021.

3. Growth for SD-branch

SD-branch simplifies network operations by consolidating WAN connectivity -- i.e., SD-WAN and routing -- with network security and LAN/Wi-Fi in a unified platform that is easy to deploy and manage.

Some SD-WAN suppliers have been aggressive in SD-branch investment -- including HPE Aruba and Fortinet -- while others have taken a wait-and-see approach. As SD-WAN suppliers continue to innovate their platforms, they will increasingly add SD-branch capabilities to their offerings. SD-branch makes significant economic sense as an all-in-one option for branch operations. Doyle Research expects the SD-branch market to grow from several hundred million dollars in 2021 to several billion dollars by 2025.

4. 5G becomes a viable WAN link

5G cellular networks now deliver connectivity speeds on par with many broadband internet services. They are easy to provision and enable rapid spin-up of new branch locations. During 2021, organizations will increasingly use 5G as one of the circuits for SD-WAN connectivity for backup and reliability, at a minimum. As 5G competition increases, costs for unlimited data plans will drop, thus making 5G WAN connections even more attractive.

5. Automation and AI make an impression

SD-WAN suppliers have been talking about how AI and machine learning will automate their networks, but actual implementations have been underwhelming. During 2021, vendors will start to deliver on their promises of improved automation for their SD-WAN products and services. Their goal is to present a unified platform for centralized control of security policies, quality of service, applications, users and devices; give IT operators the ability to ensure QoS on an end-to-end basis; and quickly identify and remediate application slowdowns.

6. Multi-cloud connectivity improves

As more and more applications move to IaaS and SaaS platforms, it's essential for enterprises to provide streamlined internet access from the branch to specific cloud-based services. SD-WAN providers have partnered with the leading IaaS providers and some SaaS platforms, such as Microsoft 365, to simplify access and accelerate connectivity.

During 2021, SD-WAN providers will continue to improve the depth of their cloud partnerships by providing more granular access control and improving QoS reliability. As IaaS providers build out local points of presence as part of their edge computing strategies, SD-WAN vendors will offer traffic management to make sure traffic flows to the best PoP to ensure consistent QoS.

7. Growth of managed services

The first wave of SD-WAN adoption was driven by leading edge enterprises that implemented the technology with their internal IT teams. The second wave of adoption will be enhanced by the popularity of SD-WAN sold as a managed service.

Managed network services are a popular method for IT organizations to outsource the challenges of providing connectivity to their branches and data centers. Implementing and integrating SD-WAN remains complex, especially for SMBs and those embracing a lean IT philosophy. SD-WAN delivered as managed service eliminates many deployment barriers and is a good fit with an IT outsourcing strategy.

Next Steps

The pros and cons of SD-WAN and remote access

This was last published in January 2021

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