Hansang Bae Image

Hansang Bae, CTO, Riverbed Technology

1433288170254I’ve lost count of how many Gartner Symposium/ITxpos I’ve been to over the years, but I’m confident the 2015 event in October will always stand out in my mind as the one where I realized that technology can finally enable IT professionals to help users how they want to be helped, not the other way around. Traditionally, the CTO implements systems and applications with the sole objective of meeting the IT department’s operational goals, and the other business units have to adapt. All users receive uniform access to applications and systems, and are on their own to figure out how to best use them to meet their specific needs. Not anymore. Thanks to technologies like software-defined wide-area network (SD-WAN), IT’s role is evolving to one of a service provider able to tailor applications for different users – even those scattered across multiple remote locations — and demonstrate to the C-Suite and Board how that ties directly to improving user productivity and driving growth. But to achieve that recognition, IT must first answer the question most business leaders will pose: “what can I actually do with SD-WAN?”

The traditional methods of delivering applications to remote locations are to push them from the data center and public SaaS providers, or to install at each branch office. That may have been sufficient years ago, but not today in the age of the hybrid enterprise.

As companies migrate more of their applications and information stores to various cloud computing services, and as more employees work remotely, the network has become more complex and difficult to manage than ever. The strain on the WAN routers impacts performance, which makes delivering and using applications slow, unreliable and expensive.

Yet ESG reports that a majority of companies not only continue to rely on these outdated application delivery models, they expect to do so for the next five years! (Source: ESG 2015 Robo Trends Survey)

This should raise a red flag, because if there’s anywhere in your organization where you need to improve operations and application performance, it’s at your branch offices.  Yet it seems that the data center always gets the latest and greatest technologies for data protection, backup and security, while the branch remains stuck in the 1990’s with tape backups and no advanced physical or cyber security measures.

Bring the branch into the software-defined movement

Industry analyst firm Gartner in its July 2015 research note “Technology Overview for SD-WAN” calls SD-WAN a new approach to support branch office connectivity in a simplified and cost-effective manner. It cites the emergence of public cloud computing as the key factor that has rendered traditional enterprise WAN architectures suboptimal from a price and performance perspective. The report also calls the benefits an SD-WAN approach offers substantial compared to traditional WAN architectures, including reduced costs, improved provisioning times and the potential for enhanced branch availability/uptime. (Source: Gartner)

Turn the commute into a non-stop ride

That’s a lot of tech-speak that won’t help IT make the SD-WAN case to other business leaders and the C-suite. So let’s compare a network built on the traditional WAN architecture to something everyone can understand: use the subway to commute to work.

Imagine you are in Manhattan and need to get across the East River to Brooklyn. It’s going to be a long, slow, tedious ride with many stops where some people get off and more get on. Everyone is treated the same, no one gets to request an express trip, even the pregnant woman going into labor on the seat next to you. That’s the tyranny of a complicated infrastructure that dictates you must take a specific rail that was built decades ago, further slowed by more rails and trains full of people on the same network.

Your company’s network also suffers from the same complexity and inefficiency. More systems and applications have come online over the years even as you keep adding new stops and more riders (i.e., remote offices and users). The network imposes the same restrictions as the subway system, forcing users to wait for applications to load as they make their way from the data center to the branch systems and finally to their devices.

If you’ve ever been New York, Los Angeles or any other large city when the President of the United States visits, you know the traffic on the streets above the subway comes to a dead stop. Why? Because the President’s motorcade receives priority over all other traffic, and enjoys roaring through traffic lights and busy intersections led by a police escort with no stops until the President reaches the destination. SD-WAN enables you to create the same model for your network, and give priority to mission critical applications.

On an SD-WAN network, every stop and track has an auto-switch. It automatically knows where you need to go, and will switch paths to take you directly where you need to go. If an application originates from a third-party SaaS provider, it offers the same performance and security guarantees as the one coming from the data center. This capacity planning capability is something the traditional WAN network cannot provide.


Before rushing to overhaul your network, here are some key considerations:

  • Audit current configurations: You’ll probably be deploying a hybrid network that includes both SDN and traditional technologies. So, before you add SDN to the mix, you’ll want to take stock of your current configurations. The goal: to make sure you maintain network-configuration consistency before and after the transition to SDN technology.
  • Validate proposed changes: Before you implement SDN technology in your network, you’ll want to predict how this process will affect your network and application performance, especially for your end users. From there you can validate your proposed changes before they take effect (and potentially cause problems).
  • Set up monitoring and management processes: Unfortunately, the dynamic nature of SD-WAN makes monitoring even more challenging. For our SteelCentral customers, we will be bringing to market an end-to-end SDN and SD-WAN visibility solution.  These are exciting times for our SteelCentral team as it is an area ripe for innovation.
  • Look to the future: Plan to succeed by implementing tools, solutions, and tactics that will grow with you, instead precluding agility, innovation and effectiveness.

Until now, an acceptable timetable for rolling out new applications and services across an entire organization is months. But Amazon has proven that won’t work if you want to compete. Your organization needs to keep up with ever-changing applications and devices your customers and employees are using, and their expectations to be able to look up information or get questions answered at a moment’s notice.

IT can demonstrate the value of SD-WAN by telling marketing, sales and the other business unit leaders how SD-WAN will enable them to meet those goals. Tell them their expectations for the network should be just like their expectations for their homes’ plumbing. While the builder installs the pipes (i.e. the infrastructure), the homeowner determines how hot or cold the water will be when it comes out of the faucet. The traditional WAN network does not give users that voice, they’re either scalded or frozen based on their data allocation.

SD-WAN lets everyone take nice warm showers.