Transformation of the Branch WAN

BrandPost By Ian Pennell
Jul 05, 2017

Digital transformation fuels a transition from a build-your-own to consuming methodologyrn

Over the past twenty-five years, Branch and Wide Area Networks (WANs) have been based on a “build-your-own” methodology, but it is starting to transition from purely build-your-own to a consume model. 

A good analogy for this transition would be the music industry transformation.  Twenty-five years ago, I used to buy a lot of vinyl records and would pick and choose the songs I liked, then build mix tapes.  I was buying and owning everything; building my own, by selecting, configuring, managing and recording. I owned and controlled every aspect. 

Next, I got to a stage where I could use iTunes, which introduced a management system from the cloud, so I no longer had to buy all the albums. I still bought the songs, but only the songs I wanted — reducing the need for storing records, buying all the equipment, and hours of configuring the tapes. I used iTunes to select, orchestrate and manage my music choices into playlists. In essence, it started to become software-defined.

Today, I don’t buy music anymore — I just consume it.  I use Spotify and Pandora, and I build my own playlists in the Cloud. I benefit from playlists and channels that others built, but I still set my own “policies” of my choices of music without having to own and control it all.  In fact, I play it on Sonos equipment, which uses cloud-based apps to tune the quality of the speakers for each room in my house without having to use the graphic equalizer and other accessories that I had to use in the past.  Today, everything about my music utilization is virtualized. Think Music Function Virtualization (MFV).

Just like the way I used to build my own mix tapes, organizations have been in the business of building their own branch office networks and WANs. They go out and purchase equipment, stack up hardware, configure and manage it all separately.  The typical WAN is built around fixed places, with a hierarchy of headquarters, regional and branch offices. 

However, with digital transformation, the business requirements that the network needs to address are changing. New networks need to embrace a more mobile and agile mindset.  The branch WAN transformation is occurring, and it is just beginning to move beyond the traditional build-your-own, fixed location hierarchy phase. 


Just like the way technologies and mobility trends such as web browsers, compression technologies and mobile players enabled me to start building playlists instead of mix tapes, there are technologies and workstyle changes that are now making this transition to software-defined networks possible. 

The first is the use of cloud-based applications.  Rather than building their own private data center-based applications, most companies are heavily utilizing cloud-based applications. Examples include Salesforce, Office 365, Expensify, etc. This trend also allows companies that traditionally have not been able to prioritize the expense of building applications to very quickly compete in previously unattainable markets. This requires all organizations to become much more agile. Consequently, it’s estimated that 80 percent or more of enterprise traffic is going out to the internet. Therefore, it no longer makes sense to build a network that is designed to take traffic back to a data center, to then go out to internet-based apps, back to a data center and then back to the user. Also, because the use of internet applications is so paramount to running a business today, the need for network resilience has dramatically increased. Simply put, the network cannot go down.

The next aspect that’s changing rapidly is the need for flexible, lower cost bandwidth. Traditional networks were mostly built with low bandwidth private lines using MPLS as a packet-forwarding technology to optimize performance. This approach was adequate for private in-house applications and low video usage. Today, however, bandwidth requirements are exploding due to video, Cloud-bound traffic, and a growing number of new applications.  While it is difficult and expensive to scale MPLS to meet this demand, combinations of broadband and LTE provide more bandwidth, resilience and speed-to-deploy—all at a much lower cost.

The third aspect driving this transition is the millennial generation entering the workforce. This generation would never think about buying albums and making their own mix tapes. Millennials entering the IT field are motivated to use the most effective ways to quickly get to business results. They don’t have the traditional view of building and owning everything. They think about what’s in the Cloud, what they can use, what they can get spun up and going right away. They think about how they can leverage this model to securely create operational efficiencies, cut costs and create ease-of-management, while still having control over network policies. 

The fourth driver is workforce mobility.  Truly, work is no longer a place to go, but a thing to do – from anywhere.  This mobility aspect drives the need for more devices to be connected to the network—and the traditional IT organization doesn’t get to dictate what is being used— it’s a BYOD (bring your own device) environment.  Typically, workers will have a smartphone, tablet, and laptop.  IDC predicts that by 2020, 75 percent of people will be working in a mobile way.  This is not to say they will all be traveling sales people; it just means the way we work will be in a mobile format, for example, mobile healthcare, connected construction and public safety officers.


The Internet of Things (IoT) is the fifth driver. IoT in an enterprise environment will enable whole new levels of efficacy and will create about 10 times the number of device connections to the network with cameras and sensors. If not done properly, this can potentially create the world’s largest attack surface for hackers.  For this reason, the need for a whole new security paradigm is in play here. Organizations need a new way of deploying, configuring, and managing deployments, because the old way of pushing data center security to the edge is too manpower-intensive, complex, expensive and risky.  Consequently, there is a strong need for not only a new mindset but also a new type of network solution.      


Finally, driving this transformation is the growth of LTE as an enterprise WAN.  As mentioned earlier, for many people work is no longer a place to go, but a thing to do.  Robust WAN connectivity in vehicles, temporary environments, machine-to-machine, and traveling individuals are all needed in new network projects.  The inclusion of wireless WAN by design into the next-generation network is imperative.  This is a prevalent component that will continue to grow, and even more so as 5G becomes more real.  Simply put, 5G can change everything.  5G has the ability to make extremely fast performance capabilities and low latency in the WAN a reality — and because it’s wireless, organizations will be able to deploy quickly — without the hassle of dealing with wired solution limitations.  With adoptions coming into play, such as IoT and the mobility of workers, the utilization of LTE as it moves into 5G is an extremely important component of how the next-generation WANs must be built. 


Software-defined WAN (SD-WAN) and Network Function Virtualization (NFV) platforms are a very critical set of technologies needed to enable the transition. They are designed to decrease the manual tasks and operational overhead, as well as increase speed-of-deploy and flexibility—all of which are needed to build the networks of the future.  They are not just designed to address networks for places, and land lines, like the build-your-own networks over many years. Rather they are designed from the ground up for mobility, and for people, places and things.  This is important because networking solutions that are not designed for mobility typically inflate WAN traffic by up to 30 percent for synthetic overhead, such as communication between network elements to decide how to best optimize the WAN.  The leaders in building networks of the future are utilizing software-defined technologies and LTE, along with cloud, mobility and are keeping IoT in mind from the beginning. 


The right solution is key to success as organizations transition to next-generation networks. Here are some must-have capabilities:

  • User-friendly graphical interfaces, where network builders can utilize capabilities, such as zero-touch deploy, policy management, data usage, health monitoring, orchestration and automation without the need to program or make command line changes in each device.
  • Extensibility capabilities through APIs that allow ultimate flexibility to develop specific applications with just that little tweak required to solve the business problem they are trying to address. 
  • Ability to define and maximize business-based policy like Smart-WAN selection, dynamic traffic steering, advanced routing, and advanced traffic control by choosing intuitive GUI menu options in cloud-based systems—without having to have network engineer level understanding of how to configure.
  • Ability to deploy solutions in a variety of environments including those for fixed branches, in-vehicle, IoT, M2M and mobile workers as this is the reality of next-generation network needs.


Software-Defined Perimeter (SD-P) solutions with network virtualization as an integrated part of the platform are needed for enterprise IoT. Network virtualization provides IT teams with the ability to spin up thousands of “things” on the network in a very automated way, with a new level of security—that wouldn’t be possible in a traditional TCP IP Network.  This is because an SD-P approach gives enterprises a private “dark cloud” that is invisible to the external world. Only the things or people selected by the administrator are allowed to go, and these things and people can see only what they have approved access.  Within this dark cloud, there is no ability for hackers to move freely within network and do discoveries—they can’t hack what they can’t see. 


Many vendors today are positioning themselves to be SD-WAN vendors; a recent report from Gartner researched 40 SD-WAN vendors and identified those among them that are moving the needle. SD-WAN is the first step beyond the build-your-own complicated methodology into a methodology of using cloud-based orchestration to optimize the deployment and management of the WAN.  This is important because these vendors strongly believe that the next-generation WANs require new solutions that allow organizations to deploy quickly and securely while minimizing the operational overhead traditionally associated with building and maintaining networks.

The SD-WAN cloud-managed platform should be built to address not just fixed places, but people, places and things — utilizing both Broadband and LTE to give organizations the ability to have less complicated, less expensive, easier to manage and maintain, extensible, and more secure network deployments.

Moving forward, organizations should be using the technologies that are available in software-defined and cloud-based applications to set up the next generation of networks to solve the business opportunities the digital transformation brings.