SD-WAN Offers Unprecedented Deployment Flexibility on the WAN

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Deployment flexibility is one of the most interesting aspects of software-defined WAN (SD-WAN) technology. Some solution providers offer total flexibility, while others are quite prescriptive. 

EMA has studied SD-WAN deployment flexibility and found a wide variety of enterprise strategies in practice today. Individual network teams will have to decide for themselves what works for them. EMA identified several aspects of SD-WAN deployment flexibility that enterprises should consider when selecting a solution. 

Procurement Flexibility: Selecting Your Solution Provider

First, there is the question of procurement strategy. Like many classes of technology, enterprises have many options for buying and installing SD-WAN technology. EMA found that the most popular approach (34%) is to buy SD-WAN from a WAN service provider or internet service provider. Many network providers offer managed SD-WAN services or simply resell SD-WAN technology.

More than one-quarter of enterprises (26%) buy products directly from an SD-WAN vendor or one of its channel partners. A smaller number (16%) prefer a carrier-neutral managed services provider. The rest (24%) remain undecided on the best procurement approach. 

One’s procurement preference will depend on multiple variables, such as an enterprise’s requirements and the capabilities of the SD-WAN solution providers it is evaluating. Enterprises with very specific and complex architectural requirements may want to take a do-it-yourself approach to purchasing and installing SD-WAN, with heavy reliance on internal expertise. In this case, they may want to buy an SD-WAN solution directly from the technology vendor. If the enterprise is less stringent in architectural requirements, it might take a more managed approach, asking a service provider to install a standardized solution across its network. 

Installation Flexibility: Appliances versus NFV

Like most of the networking world, branch infrastructure has traditionally been hardware-centric. Enterprises would deploy several vertically-integrated appliances to a remote site for routing, security, WAN optimization, and more. This appliance approach was always expensive and difficult to manage, and today’s enterprises clearly want something more software-centric.

EMA research reveals that only 21 percent of enterprises prefer to deploy network solutions in remote sites as vertically-integrated appliances. Instead, 37 percent prefer to deploy virtual network functions on open hardware, and another 42 percent prefer to deploy cloud-based network functions whenever possible. Leading SD-WAN vendors offer software-centric and cloud-centric solutions, which address this desire to abandon specialized appliances. 

Some SD-WAN vendors offer a platform that can unify multiple network functions on a single device. By leveraging concepts like network functions virtualization (NFV), these platforms can host SD-WAN functionality, routing, firewalling, and WAN optimization as a single software package on off-the-shelf hardware. These SD-WAN platforms will also integrate with third-party vendors to offer more network and security functionality, either as virtual network functions in the branch device or as cloud-based services. This platform approach presents opportunities for consolidated operations and service chaining at the branch. 

Operational Flexibility: Hybrid Operations is the Popular Choice

Network operations is another significant factor when considering a deployment model. Closing the skills gap within an IT organization is a top business driver for SD-WAN adoption, and the centralized management consoles of SD-WAN solutions are a big factor here. However, SD-WAN solutions lend themselves to operational flexibility that can further reduce management overhead.

In fact, only 9 percent of enterprises engaged with SD-WAN want to fully manage it themselves. However, total outsourcing of SD-WAN management is rare; only 10 percent prefer this approach. Instead, enterprises pursue a hybrid operations model, where the network team shares management responsibility with a solution provider, whether that provider is an MSP, a network service provider, or their SD-WAN vendor. Forty-three percent of enterprises adopt a hybrid model in which internal staff handles complex tasks, while the service provider covers minor issues. A slightly smaller number (37%) ask the service provider to handle complex tasks and leave the simple tasks to internal staff. EMA research found that more successful network teams prefer the latter approach, where the service provider does the heavy lifting. 

This operational flexibility is especially important because many branch offices lack onsite networking personnel. In fact, EMA research found that the typical enterprise maintains onsite, full-time personnel capability of supporting network engineering and operations tasks at between 40 percent and 80 percent of its sites. A hybrid operational model, where a service provider can share the load, can help cover sites that are unstaffed. 

Final Thoughts

Enterprises have a broad range of deployment options with SD-WAN, from procurement to installation to operations. Each buyer will have to determine its preferred approach. EMA recommends that everyone fully evaluate all available options. While SD-WAN is a hot market today, it didn’t take off immediately. Some early adopters ran into roadblocks that were based in part on a failure to match their requirements to deployment options. Today, more than 90 percent of enterprises are actively engaged with the technology, and EMA is observing high levels of success as network teams begin to better understand what the technology can do for them and how it could best be consumed.

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