How SD-WAN is changing the game for IT teams

An abstract image of a man controlling various IT applications from a single control panel.
(Image credit: Shutterstock)

From the rise of cloud computing to developments in AI and machine learning, and alongside a global transition to remote working, the last few years have been categorized as a period of rapid digital transformation. And most of that is here to stay. Therefore, IT teams need to be able to quickly and easily adapt their networks to support new technologies and applications.

An approach to network architecture that gives users and network administrators the power to intelligently control networks is software-defined networking (SDN). SD-WAN uses the same principles but over a more sizeable geographical area so it’s ideal for multi-site organizations, and/or those with a large remote workforce.

With its software-based approach, it’s unsurprising that the global SD-WAN market is expected to grow from $6.5 billion in 2019 to $23.4 million by 2024, according to Frost and Sullivan’s 2021 report. Against a backdrop of digital change, SD-WAN is increasing visibility, insight, and control within many IT teams’ day-to-day operations.

Why are SD-WANs gaining popularity?

Up until recently, most wide area networks (WANs) were defined and controlled by hardware – metal-cased MPLS routers, usually. Making major changes to these networks required site visits from engineers. These jobs were complicated, time-consuming and costly, often requiring IT teams to spend hours configuring and troubleshooting the networks.

SD-WANs, however, are not defined and controlled by hardware, but by software – hence, ‘software-defined’ wide area network (SD-WAN).

An SD-WAN is ‘overlaid’ across a combination of connectivity technologies such as MPLS, broadband, 4G or 5G. This creates a network: public, private, or a hybrid of both, depending on business requirements. The SD-WAN can then adjust bandwidth levels across all its connection points to keep large amounts of traffic flowing smoothly. These adjustments can be automated by AI; controlled by an IT team; or overseen by a third party.

Ian Cairns

Ian Cairns is Enterprise Sales Director at TalkTalk Business.

What benefits can SD-WAN bring for IT teams?

SD-WAN offers IT teams full visibility of their network through a single ‘pane of glass’ viewpoint that is integrated in the cloud so can be accessed from anywhere, at any time. The flow of traffic around the business – and the volume of that traffic – becomes far easier to observe than was ever possible with a network managed by hardware.

With this newfound visibility comes a more empowering sense of control. Admins – or AIs – can deploy policies, blocklists and whitelists to optimise the flow of traffic across the network and between geographical locations. The level of control on offer is granular, but IT teams aren’t at risk of tumbling down rabbit holes of confounding complexity. SD-WAN was purpose-designed to be much less convoluted and much more user-friendly than hardware-managed WAN.

And by reducing operational complexity and freeing up time and resources, costs are reduced, and efficiency is increased.

How can an IT team’s use of SD-WAN impact the wider business?

The flexibility of SD-WAN enables greater business efficiency – and lowers stress – by ensuring that applications are always running smoothly, and data is always stored safely. The bandwidth available to a business remains unchanged, but the way that this bandwidth is shared out across differing demands and teams is now instantly adjustable.

If you know, for example, that a particular department will be uploading an unusually large number of files overnight, they can be temporarily granted additional capacity to do so. Come the morning, this extra bandwidth can then be shifted back to other traffic demands.

SD-WAN’s flexibility makes it far easier to scale up or down than a router-defined network. The reach of an SD-WAN can be expanded extremely rapidly, keeping pace with even the most hungrily ambitious business. Planning on opening 50 new locations over the next five years? Go for it – an SD-WAN can immediately extend out to any location that can connect to the web.

SD-WAN is also reassuringly resilient to attack. By securing SD-WAN with SASE – secure-access service edge, the cutting edge of cloud-delivered network protection – businesses have a powerful defense against any and every potential threat.

When weighing up the pros and cons of SD-WAN, there is sometimes reluctance to abandon ‘traditional’ hardware-driven WAN altogether. There is a middle ground: Hybrid SD-WAN. This combines the unshakable security of MPLS routers with the near-limitless expandability and flexibility of DIA (direct internet access). Sensitive traffic – customers’ financial details, for example – stays with your private cloud, while everyday traffic flows across the public cloud.

With all its flexibility, visibility and resilience, SD-WAN is bringing control to IT teams and keeping them agile in an ever-changing digital world.

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Ian Cairns is Enterprise Sales Director at TalkTalk Business.