I recently ran across this blog series called “New World Blog – A window into business transformation and future technologies” on the Tata Communications website. At first glance, it might seem a bit strange for a network service provider to be hosting a blog that discusses topics such as digital transformation, productivity and smart businesses. After all, network and business operations are completely independent, correct? Conventional wisdom tells us that the network is the plumbing of the company and has no strategic value.
This was the case a handful of years ago, but not today. All of the technologies that enable digital transformation, such as the cloud, internet of things (IoT) and mobility, are network-centric in nature. This means the network has a direct impact on the success or failure of digital initiatives. For example: If a health care agency were to implement video as a service to facilitate telemedicine, a poorly designed network would cause transmission errors, making it difficult for the patient and doctor to communicate with each other.
Network issues can be particularly problematic over the wide-area network (WAN), because legacy networks were designed for client-server computing, in which the majority of traffic went from data center to branch.
Today, users are connecting from off-net locations, branch workers are using a bevy of cloud services, and IoT has pushed the network edge past the traditional demarcation point. If businesses are going to have success with digital initiatives, the evolution to a software-defined WAN (SD-WAN) is mandatory for the following reasons:
- Increased agility. Digital businesses need the ability to adapt to market trends faster than their competition. This requires a high level of IT agility, but IT can only be as agile as the most rigid component lets it be, and, in most cases, that’s the network. With an SD-WAN, the control of the network is decoupled from the infrastructure, which increases agility, so businesses can make changes or provision services through a centralized portal instead of having to do things on a box-by-box basis.
- Improved security. Digital technologies enable businesses to do more but can often create new security challenges. As an example: Accessing cloud services directly from branch offices creates new internet ingress and egress points that can be exploited by hackers. Traditional security that is deployed in the core won’t protect branches. With SD-WANs, security can be pushed out to the edge through the use of virtual appliances. Alternatively, many SD-WAN providers offer network-based security as an option to branch-resident technology. SD-WANs also simplifies the implementation of network segmentation, which is an excellent way of isolating different classes of devices.
- Active-active architecture. The active-passive architecture used in legacy networks is a highly inefficient use of bandwidth. With a hybrid network, all connections are active, creating greater agility regarding how the traffic flows. For example, a business may decide that mission-critical traffic flows over the multiprotocol label switching (MPLS) connection, and all other traffic connects over an internet-based virtual private network (VPN). The active-active architecture enables businesses to implement intelligent path selection, flow symmetry and traffic isolation with granularity down to the individual session level within each application.
- Optimized for the cloud/mobile computing era. Legacy WANs are ineffective for cloud and mobile computing, as all internet traffic goes through a single choke point and then is distributed over the WAN to the remote location. A hybrid WAN offers secure, direct internet access so that cloud and mobile applications can directly use the entire network more efficiently.
- Application visibility. Most SD-WANs have excellent visibility tools, enabling network managers to understand who is using which applications and how these are performing. This can help determine how to optimize application performance and isolate problems, when they happen. There’s an axiom in networking that states, “You can’t manage what you can’t see,” and SD-WANs let IT professionals see more.
The digital business era has arrived, and businesses have invested heavily in new technologies to fuel innovation. If businesses are going to maximize their investments in these areas, it’s time to transform the network to an SD-WAN because it should be considered a foundational element of digital transformation.
Zeus Kerravala is 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.