Is SD-WAN Dead?

Dave Greenfield
June 8, 2021

It wasn’t long ago that SD-WAN was the enterprise networking technology. With numerous startups and incredible ROI, SD-WAN was making networking cool again. However, in just a few short years, pure-play SD-WAN solutions have become almost non-existent. Their suppliers, the SD-WAN startups, are gone or acquired. Technology innovation in the space has all but disappeared. All of which begs the question, “Is SD-WAN dead?” Let’s find out.

SD-WAN Transformed the Networking Industry 

SD-WAN started life as a way to replace rigid, expensive site-to-site WAN connections such as MPLS with a more agile, economical alternative. With SD-WAN, enterprises could link sites over the public Internet, avoid the high costs of private network services, and have centralized network policy control. SD-WAN was also a way to weave encryption into the WAN.

While MPLS could take months to deploy, SD-WAN could be deployed in a matter of days or weeks by installing an SD-WAN appliance at each location. It also offered application awareness and a way to blend multiple connection types, including broadband and MPLS, as if they were one, prioritizing the fastest connections for video and other latency-sensitive applications. This network flexibility meant better overall performance and reliability than typical VPN’s, which, like SD-WAN, used the Internet for connectivity.

So….Is SD-WAN Dead for Real 

Even before Covid-19, SD-WAN interest was dwindling. Organizations were moving steadily into the public cloud and working from home was rising in popularity. To connect to the Cloud, organizations needed a way to get SD-WAN resources near the cloud datacenter, which wasn’t always practical. Working from home usually involves a VPN client, not anything having to do with SD-WAN. When Covid-19 sent millions of workers home, public cloud services and WFH took off, and site-to-site SD-WAN connections became all but irrelevant.

In case you thought otherwise, predictions are that this situation won’t change much after the Covid crisis passes. Sure, people miss the office, but they also like working from home and their bosses are no longer as wary of WFH as they were before Covid (BC). Thanks to Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Webex, and similar solutions, companies see that staff can indeed be as productive and almost as collaborative at home as they are working at the office. An August 2020 McKinsey study surveyed 278 executives and found that, on average, they planned to reduce office space by 30 percent, reflecting more WFH and remote operations, and that about 20 percent of business travel will not return.

The Network Becomes the Cloud 

If that wasn’t enough, enter the Secure Access Service Edge, a term coined by Gartner in its report, The Future of Network Security is in the Cloud. SASE converges the network and security point solutions into a single, unified, cloud-native service with all the public cloud’s scalability, easy management, and ubiquity.

As a cloud service, SASE does the bulk of its security and network processing in one of the points of presence (PoPs) comprising the global SASE cloud. SASE architectures will still use various technologies to establish encrypted tunnels to the SASE PoPs, including client software and clientless access for mobile users, native connectivity for cloud resources, and, yes, SD-WAN devices for sites.

However, these technologies only need enough processing to move traffic into the PoP, where cloud-native software applies security policies and network optimization before forwarding packets across the SASE backbone or onto the Internet. This “thin” approach lets SASE SD-WAN devices be more efficient, affordable, and easier to maintain than standalone SD-WAN appliances

With a global private backbone, cloud-native SASE offerings perform better and provide greater consistency than using SD-WAN over the public Internet. And SASE addresses not only site connectivity challenges solved by SD-WAN but enterprise network security and fast, secure access for remote users and cloud resources. It’s easy to see why SASE has become the perfect post-pandemic solution with all the advantages of the cloud that organizations have come to know and love.

The Future of SD-WAN 

As a complete enterprise solution, the age of SD-WAN has passed. Enterprises need more than the affordable site connectivity promised by SD-WAN. They need security for their sites, a way to bring cloud resources onto the enterprise network, and secure remote access everywhere for WFH. SD-WAN doesn’t address those use cases; SASE does. And it’s through SASE that SD-WAN will live on.

Dave Greenfield

Dave Greenfield is a veteran of IT industry. He’s spent more than 20 years as an award-winning journalist and independent technology consultant. Today, he serves as a secure networking evangelist for Cato Networks.