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Searching for the right WAN connection type

WAN connection types have evolved from T-1s and ISDN links to dynamic pipes capable of supporting bandwidth-intensive applications. What's next?

The history of WAN technologies is well-documented, so I won't bore you with the same generic narrative that lives in endless textbooks and on the Internet. At the same time, each one of us networkers "of a certain age" has his own personal WAN tale to tell. For the younger folks reading, I promise I won't make you watch vacation slides or torture you with "back in my day ..." stories. But I do want to share where my own WAN experience started, how it's morphed into the empowering capabilities I use today and what my own WAN future looks like. Like other network niches, WAN is evolving fast, and we're heading in profoundly cool directions.

Back in the late 1990s, I found myself thrown into the world of networking as an Air Force vet needing a new career. This was when Ethernet ran on Thinnet and Cat 3, and hubs were as common as switches. The venerable T-1 was king in my world -- the WAN connection type. We connected far-away branches over these 1.544 Mbps links, and paid a lot of money to do so. We also had a handful of 64K ISDN lines and a bank of 56K modems for my first few networking years, but the T-1 was our WAN workhorse. Though it was empowering to link our far-off outposts to the mother ship, the T-1 link's minuscule bandwidth was always a source of frustration for remote users. Worse, when problems hit, provider response wasn't always particularly fast. Occasional outages were a fact of life, and modems in individual PCs at the far end of the network represented our backup strategy.

Broadband brings relief as WAN connection type

For a brief period, we had three T-1s bonded in spots to kick up the bandwidth to 4.5 Mbps using a neat little Adtran router. Fortunately, broadband was taking root far and wide. And as cable companies extended their physical plants, broadband gained considerable traction. I found myself replacing wimpy T-1s and their fat price tags with commodity broadband connections and site-to-site VPNs. The result is that I was able to extend our network at a reasonable price and enjoy speeds that were refreshingly faster than the stodgy T-1 WAN connection type.

Disruptive tech is made better when it brings big cost savings, and, around six years ago, the heavens parted for us with phenomenal gear.

Like so many other folks taking a similar tact, I got schooled fast on VPN methodology, and in particular Cisco's Adaptive Security Appliances (ASA). The ASA certainly wasn't the only VPN endpoint out there, but it's a safe bet that it was the most common -- with lots of them still in service across the wide area landscape. Personally, I found the ASA to be fairly laborious and frequently buggy. At the time, I only supported a few WAN links using ASAs, so whenever one locked up or otherwise got weird, I'd have to dust off my rarely used skills and rely on tech support to get me through the more arcane parts of recreating encryption keys and the like.

The transformation of the basic WAN

Then my WAN world got real interesting, as the technology underpinning our WAN connection type strategies inexorably changed.

Disruptive tech is made better when it brings big cost savings, and, around six years ago, the heavens parted for us with phenomenal gear that very much lowered WAN costs while bringing a slew of features. As business-grade broadband Internet service providers (ISPs) were adding capacity at more competitive pricing, a new vendor, Meraki, introduced its MX series of security appliances. As a direct competitor to the ASA and similar old-guard WAN hardware, the MX was cloud-managed with a powerful feature set that, compared with the clunky ASAs, was child's play to invoke. I've set up complete branch environments, including site-to-site VPN, in minutes using the MX hardware and reliability has been outstanding. It has been an absolute game changer in WAN connectivity, allowing me to use a cloud dashboard to configure boxes without having to leave the office. When all is said and done, I have fast WAN links -- between 5 Mbps and more than 100 Mbps in different size locations -- that are a breeze to manage.

Cisco's IWAN (intelligent WAN), meanwhile, brings a battery of SDN-enabled features to the WAN paradigm. To me, the most immediately interesting feature of this new WAN connection type -- outside of redundancy -- is the ability to dynamically push traffic through multiple ISP links based on what's the best path at any given time. IWAN is just the tip of an SDN-enabled iceberg that's just beginning to be revealed. If you have faraway sites, you can't help but to be excited about the evolution of the WAN. One thing for sure: We've come a long way from T-1s.

Next Steps

Cisco focuses on iWAN

Looking back at the history of VPN

Calculating ASA performance

This was last published in November 2015

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