Joe Tan knew he was going to have to improve his company’s WAN environments.
Devcon Construction is a commercial building company based in Milpitas, part of Northern California’s Silicon Valley. But it has dozens of construction offices and remote sites big and small throughout Northern California.
Connectivity to the central office was important, but the company had to rely on whatever options were available at the individual sites. Some could get Multiprotocol Label Switching (MPLS) while others needed to use T1 connections, 4G wireless devices or even other technologies.
The patchwork of disparate connections created an array of problems for Devcon, from high costs and security concerns to traffic bottlenecks, network management and visibility issues, not to mention high time demands on a small IT staff, according to Tan, Devcon’s director of IT.
Audio and video collaboration was difficult because transferring large files could result in high bandwidth consumption and slow performance. Meanwhile, having service providers set up MPLS connections could be expensive and time-consuming.
“We have a lot of construction sites in Northern California, and they all need to connect back to our headquarters,” Tan told eWEEK. “Reliable connectivity is really important for our business to run.”
Tan started investigating technology options for the company’s wide-area network (WAN) about two years ago. About 18 months ago, he started talking with VeloCloud Networks, one of a growing number of vendors in the rapidly emerging software-defined WAN (SD-WAN) market.
Devcon ran a proof-of-concept with the VeloCloud technology and has since standardized its WAN environment on the vendor’s products.
VeloCloud’s software products run on standard x86 systems in a company’s branch offices or remote sites as well as in the cloud by connecting to VeloCoud Gateways housed in cloud data centers worldwide run by Amazon Web Services, Equinix and others.
The gateways ensure that all applications and workloads are delivered via the most optimized data paths and enable network services to be delivered from the cloud. VeloCloud Edges are zero-touch appliances at the remote and branch sites that provide secure connectivity to applications and services. They also offer such features as deep application recognition, performance metrics, virtual network functions (VNF) hosting and quality-of-service (QoS) capabilities.
Centralized management is provided by VeloCloud Orchestrator for installation, configuration, one-click provisioning of virtual services and real-time monitoring.
For Tan, it meant more control over the WAN environments—from management to security to high performance—and the ability to address issues centrally rather than having to constantly send tech pros to multiple sites, a significant win for a company that has an IT staff of five people.
“For a company that doesn’t have a lot of IT people, this was a quick and easy way to get reliable and powerful WAN service and not have to spend a lot on infrastructure,” he said.
The Cloud Drives Interest in SD-WAN
For much of the past decade or more, not much new had happened in the enterprise networking space, the WAN included.
That’s changed over the past couple of years, as network virtualization—including software-defined networking (SDN) and network-functions virtualization (NFV)—has come to the forefront to help enterprises address the challenges brought by such trends as the cloud, big data, mobility and the Internet of things (IoT).
More recently, innovation in the network has spilled over to the WAN with enterprises and service providers looking to SD-WAN technologies to make their networks more flexible, agile and affordable.
The WAN over the decades has relied on various connectivity protocols, from Synchronous Optical Network (SONET) and Asynchronous Transfer Mode (ATM) to MPLS. However, none of these options were made for a cloud-centric world.
Enterprises Turn to SD-WANS to Improve Branch Office Connectivity
“The industry has been looking for the reinvention of the WAN for 25 years,” Zeus Kerravala, principal analyst with ZK Research, told eWEEK. “It was designed for client/server technologies. Now we’ve got mobile traffic, a lot more cloud traffic, a lot of PLP [packet layer protocol] traffic. … The architecture we have just doesn’t work now.”
Software control of the network enables greater ability and flexibility, Kerravala said. Even now, making changes in the WAN means having to go from box to box, a process that can take months. That effort can be reduced to hours or days through the adoption of SD-WAN technologies.
It also can drive down the costs of networking by enabling businesses to complement expensive MPLS connectivity with more affordable alternatives, creating hybrid environments where the best options can be used via automated intelligent routing. WANs can more easily be connected directly to the Internet, rather than having to first run through a central data center, reducing complexity and simplifying management.
It’s bringing networks up to par with servers and storage, which already have been virtualized, according to Paul O’Farrell, senior vice president and general manager of the SteelHead, SteelFusion and SteelConnect (for SD-WAN) businesses for Riverbed technology.
“Today you can spin up servers with applications running in hours or minutes,” O’Farrell told eWEEK. “But you can’t do that with enterprise networks. … [SD-WAN] is all about turning network management from being kind of a fairly anachronistic skill based on an anachronistic approach to IT management to dragging it into the 21st Century.”
Michael Wood, vice president of marketing for VeloCloud, described current architectures as “proprietary,” “closed,” “static” and “rigid.” They need to be open, agile, automated and dynamic, Wood told eWEEK.
The key driver behind the push toward SD-WAN is where most applications are now located, according to Gartner analyst Andrew Lerner. Before, most workloads were in the data center, and businesses could use MPLS for connectivity. However, with the rise of software-as-a-service and the growth of businesses like Salesforce.com and Workday, that’s changing.
“A good portion of apps no longer are in the data center,” Lerner told eWEEK. “They’re in the public cloud. MPLS wasn’t made for that. … It’s all about the cloud. It all starts with the cloud.”
The SD-WAN market is still in its early stages, but it is expected to grow rapidly over the next several years. It is already a crowded and competitive field. Gartner is predicting that while about 1 percent of enterprises currently are using SD-WAN technology, the number will increase to 30 percent by the end of 2019.
IDC analysts in March said they expect the market to grow to recent survey by IHS Infonetics analysts found that 65 percent of campus LAN respondents have started or expect to start lab trials by the end of 2016, and 77 percent say they would go into live production by 2018. The initial use cases for the technology will involve virtualizing physical WAN links and optimizing application traffic flow, they said.
In some respects, many of the concepts of SD-WAN aren’t new, Lerner said. Encryption, zero-touch provisioning, overlay networks and subscription pricing have been around for a while. But SD-WAN offers them together in a new way that addresses issues with which WAN businesses are wrestling.
He likened it to SUVs and a small smart car. Both have essentially the same elements—engines, tires, steering wheels, seats, bodies, etc.—but the smart car care is better suited to address the challenges of driving in a city.
A Crowded Field of Vendors
The space is attracting a broad range of vendors, with almost two dozen in play now.
Enterprises Turn to SD-WANs to Improve Branch Office Connectivity
They include established networking vendors, like Cisco Systems and Juniper Networks, companies coming over from the WAN optimization space, including Riverbed Technology and Silver Peak Systems along with pure-play companies such as VeloCloud, Talari Networks, CloudGenix, Aryaka, Glue Networks, Viptela and Nuage Networks. All are trying to carve out a place for themselves in a crowded market.
Gartner’s Lerner said he expects more companies to get into the fray before the market starts to shake out over the next few years. One reason for the high vendor interest may be that Cisco, the world’s top networking vendor, is not as dominant in the WAN as it is in the data center, he said.
“Maybe vendors view SD-WAN as a jump ball, and the value of incumbency is less advantageous,” the analyst said. “A lot of vendors view this as a land grab.”
That said, Cisco is making an aggressive push into the space and is using its network installed base to its advantage.
“Customers know they can trust and rely on us,” Kiran Ghodgaonkar, senior marketing manager at Cisco, told eWEEK. “When we explain our SD-WAN solutions, they know they can work with us. … Customers want to make sure they’re investing in the right solutions going forward. They’re going to be investing [in the technology] for the next three to five years.”
Verizon is an example of the strength of Cisco’s broad customer base. The top-tier carrier is pushing a plan to virtualize its entire network, and in September 2015 announced it was adopting Cisco’s iWAN (Intelligent WAN) SD-WAN suite of products as a key first step.
At the time, Shawn Hakl, vice president of enterprise networking and innovation at the carrier, told eWEEK that Verizon engineers had looked at other SD-WAN options, but went with Cisco because of Verizon’s long working relationship with the networking vendor and because iWAN is the most prevalent technology in use in the enterprise and can easily scale.
Cisco launched iWAN about three years ago and now has more than 250 customers using the technology, Ghodgaonkar said. Officials also are looking outside the company. Earlier this year, Cisco was among the investors in a $27 million round of funding for VeloCloud, which helped bring the startup company’s overall financing total to $49 million.
Cisco also wants to drive the conversation around SD-WAN. In September 2015, Cisco officials issued their “SD-WAN Bill of Rights,” a list of 10 points they said network administrators can use as a guide to developing their SD-WAN strategies.
Despite the presence of Cisco, the expected rapid adoption of SD-WAN technology gives executives with smaller pure-play vendors confidence that they can gain traction in the crowded space.
VeloCloud’s Wood said the company has more than 150 customers, with 40 of those coming to the company in the first quarter of the year, an indication of not only his company’s momentum but also the interest in the space. “SD-WAN is the killer app of SDN,” he said.
Talari Networks has been working the space for almost 10 years, deploying its first commercial product in 2008. That longevity is an asset to Talari, giving it a head start on rivals in building out its portfolio and incorporating feedback from customers, according to President and COO John Dickey.
“We were here before SD-WAN … was even a term,” Dickey told eWEEK, pointing to the intelligence the company has put into its Thinking WAN overlay system. “That intelligent layer we have is pretty unique to us. Other players have it, but we’re ahead of them.”
Talari’s portfolio includes eight physical and two virtual appliances as well as a network controller for orchestrating traffic between edge appliances and its Aware configuration, management and analytics platform. The portfolio promises everything from deep visibility into the WAN, traffic prioritization, bandwidth reservation, and secure and reliable access to cloud applications.
Enterprises Turn to SD-WANS to Improve Branch Office Connectivity
It also offers the flexibility of working with network configurations from MPLS and Internet to hybrid, cloud and wireless. It can be deployed at the physical or virtual network edge, in the cloud or in the data center.
For their part, Riverbed officials said the move into the SD-WAN space is a natural extension of the company’s deep expertise in WAN optimization. The company announced its SD-WAN ambitions in October 2015, and earlier this year bolstered its efforts by acquiring Ocedo, whose portfolio included gateways, switches, access points and an integrated cloud management system for SD-WAN and SDN environments.
This week Riverbed rolled out SteelConnect, an SD-WAN platform that enables businesses to orchestrate application delivery across hybrid WANs, remote LANs and cloud networks like Amazon Web Services (AWS) and Microsoft’s Azure.
It also works with such products as Riverbed’s SteelCentral visibility technology to give customers the tools that will allow them to quickly design and provision networks built for an increasingly cloud-centric world.
Businesses Embracing the Idea
Many of those interviewed said interest in SD-WAN among enterprises and service providers is running high. The conversations they’re having with prospective customers have changed in recent months.
“It’s a very different scenario than it was a year ago,” VeloCloud’s Wood said. “A year ago, there was a lot less knowledge of what SD-WAN was and what the benefits are.”
Talari’s Dickey said that “for a while, we felt like Johnny Appleseed,” planting the seeds of SD-WAN at a time when few had it on their radar. “Now everybody knows what SD-WAN is. We don’t have to explain this anymore. … [The market] is more competitive, but it’s easier when you don’t have to explain the concept.”
With that knowledge comes an understanding by business of how they want to proceed, and what they want in these early days of the market is a migration path to hybrid SD-WAN environments without disrupting what they already do now with MPLS and other technologies. “The hybrid case is one of comfort,” ZK Research’s Kerravala said.
“You don’t have to go in all at once,” Dickey said. “You can buy small and buy more over time.”
Cisco’s Ghodgaonkar said customers are interested in melding SD-WAN with their current investments.
“MPLS isn’t going away any time soon,” he said. SD-WAN “is a complement to MPLS, and it comes back to what the customer’s needs are.”
Rapid adoption will continue through 2016, according to analysts and company officials. The interest and knowledge are there while the benefits are hard to ignore. Vendors say they can see that interest in the number of customers coming to them.
“There are a lot of trees out there, and there’s a lot of fruit on them,” Talari’s Dickey said. “People are coming in.”
Case Studies Will Be Important
Kerravala said what he hopes to see as the year progresses are more case studies on customer deployments that businesses can look to for information on such aspects as technologies, deployment challenges and return on investment.
Devcon’s Tan said he is happy to be one of those case studies. By deploying VeloCloud’s technology, the company was able to reduce WAN bandwidth costs by 75 percent a month and operational costs by 50 percent by being able to take care of IT issues centrally rather than having to send IT professionals to remote sites.
Before the SD-WAN was in place, the remote sites were “difficult to manage,” Tan said. “There was no unified way of doing it. We spent a lot of time troubleshooting.”
Now, equipment is tested before it goes out into the field. Once there, the components can be managed from the main office.
“Troubleshooting is a lot easier,” he said. “Once [the systems] are online, we can do management centrally. We can set up a new box, troubleshoot it. It’s a lot easier.”