Why the Time is Now for Next-Generation SD-WAN

eWEEK NETWORKING ANALYSIS: Palo Alto Networks unveils a next-generation SD-WAN that fills some big gaps in current solutions.

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Software-defined WAN (SD-WAN) solutions have now been available for the better part of a decade, and what’s available today isn't fundamentally different from what was available then. SD-WANs have seen tremendous interest as the WAN architecture used by most companies has not evolved for the better part of 30 years. The shift in application traffic from being primarily on premises-based to cloud has been one of the primary drivers of change.

COVID-19 has accelerated SD-WANs 

While the interest in SD-WAN has been strong, the COVID-19 pandemic has taken it to another level. A couple of data points from the recent ZK Research Work From Anywhere Study that underscore this are: 

  • 58% of respondents state the pandemic has increased the value of the WAN; 
  • 46% state the pandemic has accelerated their SD-WAN deployment timeline; and 
  • 58% want to use SD-WANs to make the shift to work from home easier. 

Legacy WANs don’t solve all problems 

However, as businesses turn to SD-WANs to transform their organizations, SD-WANs need to evolve. Legacy SD-WANs focused on enabling businesses to take advantage of low-cost broadband instead of having to rely on expensive MPLS connections. This certainly reduced the cost of networking and improved the reliability of the network, but current SD-WANs still have the following challenges: 

  • Outdated architecture. Most SD-WAN solutions have maintained packet-based architectures that are built on layer 3 policies. This limits the app-based networking capabilities. Also, while network visibility has been improved with SD-WANs, packet-based networks have no application visibility making it difficult to create app based service level agreements (SLAs).
  • Manual operations. SD-WAN vendors have focused on network cost savings, which can be significant. However, the big cost of running a network, more than than 50% in some cases, comes from operational expenses. Some SD-WAN vendors have improved day 0 and day 1 operations through zero touch provisioning, but day 2 remains a struggle as on-going configuration changes still need to be done manually. The heavy emphasis on manual operations has a negative impact on network reliability. A recent study from ZK Research found that, with legacy operations, human errors is the largest cause of unplanned network downtime.
  • Security is an overlay. Legacy SD-WANs focus on the network, but security remains a series of point products that are effectively “bolted on” to the network. This creates inconsistent policies, increases operational complexity, adds costs and isn’t all that effective. 

If businesses are going to take full advantage of SD-WANs, it’s time for the technology to take the next evolutionary step forward. The transition SD-WANs are going through is typical of the way most technology evolves. The first wave of something new is to use the new to mimic the old, and then eventually we figure out how to do things differently. For example, with cloud computing, the first phase of clouds was to lift and shift legacy workloads. Same workloads, different location. 

Now, cloud native is the norm, but we need to do a whole lot more. What’s needed with SD-WAN is a network that doesn’t change and lets users do what they were doing before more efficiently--but still allows businesses to do things that weren’t possible with legacy WANs. 

Palo Alto Networks introduces next-generation SD-WANs 

This week Palo Alto Networks announced its next-generation SD-WAN solution that addresses these issues. The solution is built on a combination of Palo Alto technology and the recently acquired CloudGenix SD-WAN solution. The framework for its SD-WAN are built on the following three tenets:

  • Application defined network. This is a significant change to the role of the network because it makes changes based on application-level events and not network ones. Traditional networks look at things such as packet loss and jitter and determine where to route traffic based on those metrics. One can interpret the impact to apps, but that isn’t always correct. Palo Alto monitors application sessions and makes decisions based on things such as transaction times, application fingerprints, MOS scores and more. The network essentially becomes an “application fabric” that is able to continually optimize traffic flows on an app-by-app basis. To get an idea of the impact this can have, AutoNation deployed CloudGenix and saw a 10x improvement in application performance.
  • Autonomous network operations. Palo Alto uses machine learning to automate network operations and troubleshooting. The company captures network data and analyzes it to understand baseline operations. Any changes that happen are seen immediately enabling the network to automatically adjust, if needed. Companies can create application, security and compliance policies that can be enforced via automation removing any chance of human error. With this release, Palo Alto is introducing a number of new capabilities, including automated problem resolution, statistical analysis of application performance and event correlation. Captrust is a customer that has implemented the automation capabilities and has seen a whopping 99% reduction in trouble tickets.
  • Cloud delivered branch services. With legacy environments, network and security services were deployed in the branch on physical hardware. This meant a change to the network required an engineer to log into each of those devices and perform the same task over and over. Palo Alto has made all of the network and security services available from the cloud. This includes QoS, VPNs, policy based forwarding, firewalls, zero trust, sandboxing and more. The benefit of this is that each branch can have the same level of data center class security without requiring physical infrastructure. This could also be used to scale work from home. Users connecting from their house or even on a mobile device in a coffee shop would connect into the cloud and be protected from the cloud resident security services. Cloud-delivered services are the only way to cost-effectively scale WANs, because the WAN is now connecting branches, home workers, clouds, edges and IoT endpoints. 

Digital transformation and COVID-19 have reshaped the business world, causing companies to rapidly deploy cloud services, mobile initiatives, IoT projects and other initiatives. These are all network-centric paradigms that have shifted the network, particularly the WAN, from being the “pipes” of an organization to its most important strategic asset. 

This mandates the network needs to evolve, but SD-WANs alone don’t solve all problems. Palo Alto’s new next-generation SD-WAN shifts the focus of SD-WANs from being transport-centric to security- and application-centric. 

Zeus Kerravala is an eWEEK regular contributor and the founder and principal analyst with ZK Research. He spent 10 years at Yankee Group and prior to that held a number of corporate IT positions.