Tips and tricks for a successful SD-WAN

Early adopters share their secrets for achieving cost savings and performance benefits.

magic cloud computing 2

Software-defined Wide Area Network (SD-WAN) technology promises enterprises true transport independence and flexibility. SD-WAN adopters can turn to any transport protocol -- 3G, 4G LTE, MPLS, Internet or Wi-Fi -- to provide the best cost and performance benefits for specific applications.

IDC last year predicted that the SD-WAN market could reach $6 billion by 2020, fueled by its efficiencies and cost savings. Yet many organizations continue to avoid the technology, fearing that deployment issues will create new headaches in performance, reliability, security, staff training and other key areas.

John Shaffer, CIO at Greenhill & Co., a New York-based global investment bank, says that such fears are generally unwarranted. "I found it to be one of the most painless experiences that you could ever have," he says.

Like many SD-WAN adopters, Greenhill turned to the technology to solve a specific problem. For Greenhill, the issue was MPLS connectivity snags at some of its overseas branch offices. "SD-WAN began as a backup and then we started to realize this really can be the primary approach; you can leverage MPLS into your overall SD-WAN adoption," Shaffer says.

Shaffer was impressed by how well the Viptela SD-WAN worked and how easy it was to deploy. "SD-WAN has the opportunity to displace MPLS networks, and that’s the direction I'm moving toward right now," he says.

Set priorities

The first step for any enterprise is identifying network requirements and anticipated goals, including cost, performance, security and management. "Then find a solution that suits those needs," advises Tony Wilkins, IT director for the Gold's Gym fitness chain.

The Dallas-based company wanted its Aruba Networks SD-WAN to lower costs while maintaining or exceeding existing performance benchmarks. "We use our SD-WAN to make our network connectivity more efficient and more cost effective by using commoditized internet service to provide seamless redundancy and performance," he says. "We also use it for ease of deployment and bandwidth massaging, shaping data usage to prioritize corporate traffic."

For TGI Fridays, flexibility was a top priority. The SD-WAN technology the Dallas-based firm acquired from VeloCloud was selected to accommodate the widely different needs of corporate users, restaurant staff and customers. "Our front-line team members are using tablets, so they have to be connected," says Sherif Mityas, TFI Fridays' CTO.

"We also take online orders for delivery and carry-out, so our kitchen has to be connected. Unlike a conventional WAN, the SD-WAN gives TGI Fridays a complete menu of transport protocols that can be matched to specific services to optimize performance and cost.

SD-WAN's flexibility also helps TGI Fridays keep pace with the technology-driven changes that are transforming the casual dining market. "We want people to be able to use their smartphones to change the music in our restaurant; we want them to have the ability to buy drinks for friends across the bar," Mityas says. "This is what drove the functional requirements we needed to have for the system."

To ensure a smooth deployment and long-term success, Mityas decided to approach the SD-WAN transition in the same way a physician assesses a patient. "We wanted to make sure that we did no harm," he says. Due diligence included speaking with several vendors and examining the situation from a functionality perspective, as well as cost, timing and security angles. "We methodically went through a step-by-step process to ensure that the changeover would be as seamless as possible to our restaurants, because they can’t go down without creating a major inconvenience and financial loss."

No need to rip and replace

David Baldwin, CIO of Borrego Health, a primary health care provider headquartered in Borrego Springs, Calif., believes that many enterprises approach their SD-WAN project from the wrong direction. "IT management tends to assume that implementing SD-WAN has to be either a rip-and-replace project or significantly disruptive to deploy," he notes. "We found it to be quite the opposite of that."

Borrego Health replaced its existing T-1 line technology with a Mushroom Networks SD-WAN that was designed to cost-effectively interconnect approximately 30 clinics and offices scattered across Southern California. "We were able, with minimal downtime, to deploy into each of our different branch offices, clinics and administrative offices with only just a few minutes of conversion from the old network method to a pass through methodology with the Mushroom technology.

Baldwin says that an SD-WAN can be built from scratch as a greenfield project or as a brownfield upgrade. "If you want to keep your existing WAN components intact, injecting SD-WAN as an overlay into your network in a brownfield, make sure that your SD-WAN vendor supports pass-through set ups to make that possible," Baldwin says. "That certainly will provide the most cost effective and efficient transition," he adds.

"If you have a good foundation of Layer 3 switches, you can build upon that," Wilkins advises.

Pilots lead the way

Experienced SD-WAN users credit pilots and phased rollouts with helping them pinpoint and fully understand their network needs. The approach also allows SD-WAN technology to be rolled out across sites in a fast, efficient and organized manner. "Piloting allows you to see how to shape the SD-WAN to suit your business needs rather than you suiting it," Wilkins says. "Make sure, however, that the pilot is a site with real data and real challenges--creating a lab environment is simply not enough."

Pilots and phased rollouts also allow enterprises to work out stubborn problems during the first few installations and gradually build deployment momentum. "A repeatable process allowed us to go from doing a few stores a week during the initial pilot phase to doing 30 stores a week later on," Mityas says.

Mityas also recommends performing installations during non-critical time periods. "We do the transition during off-hours, before the store is open, so that when the store comes online it’s on the new platform, which has been tested," he says. "The tablets, the gift cards, the online ordering, the guest Wi-Fi -- everything works."

Staff preparation, aimed toward bringing IT team members up to speed on SD-WAN practices and objectives, is also essential for a successful deployment. "My team was heavily involved up front, ensuring that the processes go right," Mityas says. The goal was to make the SD-WAN deployments as easy as turning a crank. "The playbook is there, it’s locked and loaded, you know it works and you know that it takes this amount of time and this many people to go from A to B," Mityas says. "Preparation allows the implementation to become ever smoother as it moves across the country and across your sites."

Focus on security

Rock-solid security is as important to a virtualized network as it is to a traditional network coupled to underlying hardware. "Security is really at the heart of the SD-WAN, and it can become an opportunity rather than a challenge," Baldwin says. "When you simplify your network and take advantage of SD-WAN’s encryption and firewall features, the security management becomes more centralized and homogenized."

Wilkins believes that SD-WANs generally create more security flexibility than their non-virtualized counterparts. "SD-WANs allow you to traffic-shape, so you can put rules around your type of traffic, thus making it more secure," he says.

Mityas notes that SD-WAN security doesn't create any new learning curves. "All of the core cyber security guidelines and processes that we have, including the firewalls we have in place, continue to support, work and integrate with the new SD-WAN platform," he says. "So there’s really no change, which allows us to continue to uphold our high security standards."

SD-WAN technology also allows adopters to investigate alternative security approaches. "The Mushroom SD-WAN enabled our branch office traffic to be funneled through a centralized gateway, which enables us to provide centralized security services to the branches without infrastructure at each of our branch offices," Baldwin says.

Compared to traditional networks, SD-WANs usually provide much greater control over configuration and management tasks. "I found that my technical team wasn’t expecting to have as much control as the Mushroom SD-WAN solution ended up giving us," Baldwin says. The new capabilities temporarily stunned the team. "We weren’t quite ready to see everything it was going to do for us," Baldwin says. "The technical challenge became an exercise for us in a positive way in that we were going to have these extra capabilities and much finer control over our network."

Once the staff got the hang of the new features, they were able to put them to immediate use. "It really has shifted the focus of my team away from putting out fires constantly and being able to be more proactive and monitor and control how our network is being used," Baldwin says.

"From a monitoring perspective, the team is able to see and diagnose things before the store goes down, and to be more proactive from a root cause and resolve perspective," Mityas says. "So it’s actually helping them focus more on what they should be doing to ensure that we keep 'the patient' stable at all times."

Visibility and cost savings

Greenhill appreciates the deep visibility SD-WAN monitoring provides. "One of the advantages of SD-WANs is that you can start putting circuits in and get a much better idea of what your bandwidth is doing versus going through the provider," he says. "With the SD-WAN solution, we can see which routes make the most sense."

Baldwin says he has no regrets about transitioning Borrego Health's network operations to SD-WAN. "I’m convinced that SD-WAN is a technology that can benefit most enterprises, large and small," he says. "I encourage my peers to take a serious look at this approach of building networks, as I guarantee it will pay for itself many times over in a fairly quick time period."


Copyright © 2017 IDG Communications, Inc.

The 10 most powerful companies in enterprise networking 2022