Companies are increasingly turning to “as a service” platforms and moving systems to the cloud, but can their networks handle it? Traditionally, organizations have used Multiprotocol Label Switching, or MPLS, as the standard-bearer, and most major companies still use it.

But software defined wide-area networking, also known as SD-WAN, is becoming a popular option for enterprises that need support for latency-sensitive applications while at the same time controlling costs and enhancing performance.

Ken Presti, vice president of research and analytics at AVANT Communications recently wrote a report about SD-WAN’s widespread adoption and best practices for companies considering a change.

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Presti called SD-WAN “the most disruptive technology” in AVANT’s 2019 State of Disruption Study, a market research initiative that polled more than 300 technology decision-makers in IT.

“The emergence of a widening variety of latency-sensitive and bandwidth-heavy applications is driving a need for increased demands on corporate networks, while at the same time reinforcing a certain cost consciousness and security awareness. Increasingly, data traffic no longer lives solely within the confines of a corporate data network,” Presti wrote in the report. “The trends to leverage cloud platforms such as UCaaS, CRM, and email are also changing corporate WAN requirements. SD-WAN can meet these needs and can be used in conjunction with any other network technologies, including broadband, MPLS, Ethernet, 4G/5G wireless, DSL, private fiber networks, and satellite.”

The decision to switch from MPLS to SD-WAN usually comes during a larger discussion about bandwidth-heavy applications the company hopes to adopt. However, SD-WAN is now the choice for companies that need a network powerful enough to the higher-level application that is intended to provide a competitive differentiator for the customer.

“SD-WAN is generally considered to be less expensive and more easy to manage than MPLS. SD-WAN is growing, but so is MPLS because MPLS is so well entrenched in the large enterprises, especially around the core of the network, so that its not getting displaced there,” Presti said.

“Let’s say a company wants to migrate to unified communications as a service, and they look at the network and come to the realization, perhaps through an advisor, that the network isn’t ready to support something that is as latency sensitive as that. So at that point, they say it’s time to upgrade your network, and SD-WAN is the way to go,” he continued.

In an interview with TechRepublic, Presti explained the three things companies need to look out for when considering SD-WAN.

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1. Start with your applications

Before making any moves, you should understand that any decision should be based on the applications you hope to use. Once you know what kinds of things you’ll adopt for your business, you can search to find the right network.

“Start from the applications and work your way down. You look at what you want your network to do and how you want it to grow,” Presti said. “So for example, if you’re moving towards Salesforce or any cloud applications, you start at the application point and figure out what level of performance you need in order to support those applications.”

In addition to potential applications, companies should consider security needs, geographic needs, preference for self or turnkey management, and much more.

“Mid-size and small enterprises are moving quickly to cloud, with large enterprises consideration rates increasing more each day” said Oracle Communications vice president Gary Levy in the Avant survey. “As mission-critical applications are sourced across cloud environments, enterprises are re-thinking how they leverage MPLS. We find that enterprises are reducing expensive point-to-point MPLS circuits, increasing usage of less expensive broadband internet, and rapidly deploying SD-WAN.”

SD-WAN is able to dynamically make a decision on where to route traffic making it ideal for higher reliability networks. Multiple service providers can also be used in an all-active configuration in order to minimize the impact of an outage. It’s also able to incorporate a number of different security features, which can potentially replace standalone security appliances, firewalls, VPNs, and more advanced security functionality.

2. Ask questions and check your current contract

Before you make any move to SD-WAN, Presti said, it was important to ask questions and check your current contract. Many MPLS contracts are filled with costly measures penalizing any attempt to break contracts.

Part of what is spurring an increase in the use of SD-WAN is its ability to work in concert with MPLS networks, allowing companies to slowly transition away from it as their contracts near an end. “MPLS is usually delivered through a subscription with a service provider and very often those contracts have fairly punitive terms if you terminate that contract early,” Presti said. “So one of the things you want to do is if you’re looking into moving to SD-WAN, look at what you have in place in terms of contracts. When does that contract expire? What sort of notice do you have to give? If there are fees, that could eat into savings.”

Enterprises should check whether their current MPLS provider also has options for SD-WAN, as many companies are now moving into the space and that would provide the easiest mode of transition.

The AVANT report said 62% of respondents are coming to SD-WAN from a MPLS environment, and 40% had a near-term plan to keep their original network, while a nearly equal percentage plan to replace their original network sooner rather than later. About 40% are planning to deploy a hybrid environment that includes MPLS and SD-WAN.

Before switching to SD-WAN, companies should consider a range of questions. What applications will be running over the network, and where are they located? Are there any highly network sensitive applications to consider? Are you equipped to manage the SD-WAN network yourself, or do you want a full turnkey solution? What are the security requirements for the solution and is there an opportunity for enhancing your security posture depending on the chosen solution?

3. Hire an advisor

The decision to switch over to SD-WAN is difficult and wildly complicated. The AVANT report said the move “is often a detailed decision-making process that takes into account a variety of facets and may cross the boundaries of multiple organizations within your company, including management, IT, security, and finance.”

“Also, given the variety of available options we recommend you consult with third-party trusted advisors familiar with the SD-WAN landscape to help you make a well-informed choice,” Presti added.

There are now dozens of options for SD-WAN providers, and each has a slightly different offering. Some of the the standalone services include companies like Aryaka, Big Leaf Networks, Cato Networks, Cisco, Cloudgenix, Fortinet, and Oracle.

Major carriers and aggregators have SD-WAN options, including AT&T Business, Atlantic Metro, BCN, Bullseye Telecom, China Telecom, Aptum, CenturyLink, GTT, TATA, Verizon and Zayo.

According to Presti, the best way to conduct a seamless transition is to hire outside help to guide your IT team through the process.

“Have a solid, trusted advisor come in, look at your network and figure out how to make this transition with the least amount of disruption. Whenever you do a technology transition, you have to look at how any change is going to impact everything else around it,” Presti told TechRepublic. “It’s not difficult for the people who understand it, but it’s a critical part of the process that needs to be done properly. You can’t just spring this on your team. You have to work with people who know SD-WAN.”

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