Software-defined solutions for a network defined by complexity

Applying SDN principles to the WAN can help overcome challenges posed by the complexity of modern networks

Those of us who have been in enterprise IT for a while would remember a simpler time. A time when IT assets were limited to a handful of data centres, where users and applications were all bound by one unified MPLS network and where external access was limited to a centralised Internet gateway.

Today, there are seemingly infinite options for businesses to mix off-premise assets with their existing IT infrastructure, the most common being the movement of workloads such as collaboration (Office 365) to SaaS and data storage to IaaS.

Simply put, as the Internet becomes the backbone of enterprise, networks of yesteryear seem quaint in comparison.

Compounding this complexity is the explosion in the number of service providers involved in the provision of network and application services. Enterprises are going from one network service provider to multiple, one or more for MPLS, plus one or more for the Internet – add SaaS and IaaS services into the mix and visibility and management become nightmarish.

This shift is accelerating and to ensure users are productive wherever they’re located, critical network and application performance management is more important – and more challenging – than ever.

With the network architecture, applications and infrastructure being more distributed than ever before, the tools and processes used to manage performance and productivity 10, 20 or 30 years ago need to evolve, or rapidly lose relevance.

Over the past few years, a novel architecture has emerged to solve similar problems within the data centre: Software-defined networking (SDN).

SDN essentially allows complete control of network functions from a single, centralised interface which enables on-demand provisioning, automated load balancing, and the ability to scale network resources in response to application and data needs.

SDN offers multiple benefits within the data centre but, with each data centre supporting an average of 55 branch offices, what is being done for the workers at the edge of the network? By applying the SDN principles to the Wide Area Network (WAN) – in the form of SD-WAN solutions – enterprises will be able to overcome some of the most critical challenges posed by the increasing complexity of modern networks.

Application awareness

According to an application performance study Riverbed conducted last year, it takes an Australian organisation an average of 5.65 hours to resolve a serious enterprise application problem. This is almost an entire day of lost productivity. The reasons for this delay are twofold: Multiple network paths and variable application dependencies. So where do you begin looking for the problem?

SD-WAN enables rapid response to business needs, or performance issues via centralised management of application-aware policies. This means business-critical applications can be directed to the most appropriate network path to ensure optimum performance.

On the flip side, applications like streaming HD video, software updates, security packages, etc. which typically impact business application performance, can be diverted to cheaper, less critical Internet links, as a policy.

Application-aware networking, coupled with end-to-end visibility of network performance and end-user experience, allows application issues to be proactively detected and fixed before they impact employees.

On- and off-premise optimisation

Research firm IDC forecasts that the total public cloud spend in Australia will reach more than A$1.7 billion in 2018 and SaaS is expected to dominate this spend. Considering this, an SD-WAN offering that doesn’t also optimise off-premise applications wouldn’t be worth much.

With SaaS applications becoming ingrained within the modern digitally-defined enterprise, SD-WAN’s optimisation capabilities for cloud-based applications, such as Office 365 or Salesforce, allow enterprises to have the best of both worlds: the savings and efficiency gains of SaaS without having to sacrifice performance or control.

Policies can be set automatically so that applications – whether on or off premise – are programmed to use a specific network at specific times, depending on the traffic, business need, security or other factors.

Smarter security

These same kind of policy-based deployments also apply to security. Rather than increasing security on all network connections, which is an extremely costly proposition, network administrators can instead ensure that sensitive data is always transmitted across encrypted networks. Should enterprises pay the same to transmit recreational content as they would to secure the transmission of intellectual property?

Additionally, because security policies are applied to the data with SD-WAN, not the network, it makes it much easier for an organisation to implement and scale global security policies.

By setting policies based on business process, network administrators could, for example, program uploads from the branch at month’s end to automatically use more secure network connections, then switch to cheaper connections when less security is required.

There is a tendency in life to look back on the past with rose-coloured glasses. Some in IT may be doing so now, lamenting the complexity of today’s enterprise architecture and pining for the networks of old, but they shouldn’t be. They should turn their rose-tinted glasses to the future, and anticipate a time where SD-WAN makes network management not only far more efficient, but also simpler than it has ever been.

Ian Raper is APJ vice-president of solutions at Riverbed.

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