SD-WAN: Unstacking the Branch for WAN Simplicity

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Managing a big pile of network gear at every branch location is a hassle. No surprise, then, that Nemertes’ 2018-19 WAN Economics and Technologies research study is showing huge interest in collapsing the branch stack among those deploying SD-WAN:

  • 78% want to replace some or all branch routers with SD-WAN solutions
  • 77% want to replace some or all branch firewalls
  • 82% want to replace some or all branch WAN optimizers

While collapsing the WAN stack can have capital benefits, although it is not guaranteed unless one moves to an all-opex model, whether box-based Do-It-Yourself (DIY) or an in-net/managed solution (where a service provider manages the solution and delivers some or all SD-WAN functionality in their network instead of at the endpoints). After all, the more you want a single box to do, the beefier it has to be, and one expensive box can wind up costing more than three relatively cheap ones. More compelling in the long run are the operational benefits of collapsing the stack: smaller vendor and product pool, easier staff skills maintenance, and simpler management processes.

IT sees benefits from reducing the number of products and vendors it has to manage through each device-layer’s lifecycle. Fewer vendors means fewer management contracts to juggle. It means fewer sales teams to try to turn into productive partners. And, it means fewer technical support teams to learn how to work with—and relearn and relearn again and again through vendor restructurings, acquisitions, divestitures of products, or simply deals with support staff turnover. Having a single relationship, whether box vendor or service provider, brings these costs down as far as possible, and simplifies relationship management as much as possible.

Fewer solutions typically also means reducing the number of technical skill sets needed to keep the WAN humming. There is that special, though not uncommon, case where solutions converge but management interfaces don’t, resulting in little or no savings or improvement of this sort. But, when converged solutions come with converged management tools and a consistent, unified interface, life gets better for WAN engineers. When a team only has to know one or two management interfaces instead of five or six, it is easier for everyone to master them, and so to provide effective cross-coverage. Loss or absence of a team member no longer carries the risk of a vital skill set going missing.

Most importantly, though, IT should be able to look forward to simplifying operations. When the same solution can replace the router, firewall, and WAN optimizer, change management gets easier, and the need to do network functional regression testing decreases. IT no longer has to worry that making a configuration change on one platform will have unpredictable effects on other boxes in the stack. The need to make sure one change won’t trigger cascading failures in other systems is part of what drives so many organizations to avoid changing anything on the WAN, whenever possible.

A side effect of that lowered barrier to change on the WAN should be improved security. We have seen far too many networks in which branch router operating systems are left unpatched for very long stretches of time, IT being unwilling to risk breaking them in order to push out patches, even security patches.

Although it can be argued that the SD-WAN appliance becomes too much of a single point of failure when it takes over the whole stack, it is worth remembering that when three devices are stacked up in the traffic path, failure in any of them can kill the WAN. A lone single point of failure is better than three at the same place, and it is easier to engineer high availability for a single solution than for several.

And, of course, if the endpoint is mainly a means of connecting the branch to an in-net solution, redundancy at the endpoint is even easier (and redundancy in the provider cloud should be table stakes as a selection criterion). Whether IT is doing the engineering itself or relying on the engineering of a service provider, that’s a win no matter what.

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