Powerful networks

How is SD-WAN adoption progressing in the UK? And what opportunities remain for the Channel? Comms Business talks to the experts.

SD-WAN, or software-defined wide area networks, are being used across the UK and the Channel is playing a vital role in helping organisations adopt these types of network.

Sanjay Radia, sales engineering manager at Netscout, outlined common use cases. He said, “Companies incorporating remote, work-from-home or hybrid work models – or those planning to scale up their operations – would likely need a software-defined WAN. Consider, for example, how the pandemic forced most businesses to shift their entire workforces to remote working overnight – with varying levels of preparedness.

He explained, “For many, the sheer scale of the changes and demands that work-from-home orders put on the network was a challenge. To ensure the continued operation of businesses, overcoming these challenges and assuring reliable business service access for at-home workers became critical. Many businesses opted for an SD-WAN as a more cost effective and efficient solution than a traditional hardware-based WAN. This is just one example of why an SD-WAN may be needed.

“It’s also worth noting that, migrating to an SD-WAN is a major transformation for any enterprise, and although it can reduce complexity, making the transition is by no means a simple one.

“Companies looking to adopt SD-WAN solutions can benefit from improved cost-efficiency and performance compared to traditional hardware-based WAN operations. For sysadmin and ITOps team, SD-WAN provides opportunities for extended visibility across end-to-end traffic, with virtual service assurance functions from the network edge. With this, users benefit by receiving more reliable real-time information on security events and application performance than ever before.”

Notable vendors

So, who are the main SD-WAN players in the UK channel? Martin Saunders, product director at Highlight, emphasised the disjointed nature of the SD-WAN market here in the UK. He said, “This is a hyped market with considerable fragmentation. Vendors of router or firewall technologies are all keen to offer SD-WAN services, with varying degrees of capabilities. Careful assessment is therefore needed since each has their own benefits and downsides.

“The main vendors that we see are Cisco Meraki, Fortinet, VMware VeloCloud, HP’s new Aruba and Silver Peak venture, and Juniper with its 128 Technology acquisition.

“SD-WAN technology was originally designed for the enterprise, so it is important to look closely at each vendor’s offer and the reference sites of both the enterprise customers and the service providers. Some are more suited to small scale rollouts with limited functionality and others for larger installations. Many service providers are choosing to mix and match to support a range of technologies.”

Adam Hartley, senior sales engineer, Forcepoint, explained the emergence of next-generation firewall solution, or NGFW, SD-WAN vendors. “There are two types of SD-WAN players in the UK channel. Forcepoint is one of a few big players offering SD-WAN as part of a next-generation firewall solution, while pureplay SD-WAN vendors are building market share year on year and are often being bought up by other vendors to bring SD-WAN features into their portfolios.”

Adoption and progress

When asked how SD-WAN adoption is progressing in the UK, Saunders, from Highlight, said, “There is a lot of interest. Any organisation considering buying or selling a new network of any reasonable size will have SD-WAN as part of the equation. Adoption in the service provider market is quite slow. That is because customers tend to make SD-WAN decisions as part of a major change to a network, and major changes do not happen very often.

“The momentum will come over the next two to four years as organisations switch from traditional MPLS private networks to SD-WAN. Currently, only a small percentage of firms are making this move right now, although almost all consider SD-WAN is part of their networking future.

“Current adoption is being driven by large corporates due to their need to deliver cost savings across offices in multiple countries. SD-WAN enables them to switch from expensive MPLS networks to far cheaper internet connectivity at each location. The SD-WAN provides an overlay on top of those internet connections and the organisation can connect their offices with a virtual private network using SD-WAN technology.

“Whilst originally focused on large scale global enterprises, SD-WAN is now working its way to the mid-market, to organisations with tens or hundreds of locations as a viable replacement for MPLS networks. For these mid-market enterprises, it provides a far more efficient use of connectively via broadband and cellular, with assurance of good application performance in both their own data centres, and in the cloud.

“SD-WAN is particularly useful for organisations with remote locations where high-grade connectivity in too expensive. In retail settings for example, SD-WAN can make an existing broadband link more efficient with support from a cellular backup. The SD-WAN makes clever decisions on which is the best network to use.

“Currently, the whole industry is suffering from silicon chip shortages which is slowing down adoption. Some equipment is not available for up to a year.”

Forcepoint’s Hartley discussed global adoption rates. He said, “There has been progression in the adoption of SD-WAN across the UK, which is trailing just behind North America. The 2019 Global Market Insights stated that the global SD-WAN market was worth $1 billion worldwide in 2019 and estimated that the SD-WAN market will be worth $30 billion by 2026, with the UK holding a 30 per cent share of the market compared to 45 per cent in North America.

“Gartner, IDC and Futuriom all give similar figures and predictions of extremely high compound annual growth rates (CAGR). Every day, we see more organisations realising the benefit of SD-WAN in the UK, even more so as they realise access and SaaS application experience is a key metric for them.”

Dean Watson, lead solution expert, Nuvias, explained what has historically been the biggest selling point of SD-WAN? He said, “For many customers, agility has been the biggest selling point of SD-WAN. Being able to adapt to change in weeks, rather than months, delivers an immediate tangible value. Other customers have been able to use SD-WAN to rationalise WAN costs by reducing international MPLS costs with a reduction in headcount due to SD-WAN automation.”

Understanding applications

When asked what use cases SD-WAN fits, Saunders, from Highlight, said, “SD-WAN is designed to make more efficient use of a network. It helps to make better use of broadband and cellular technology by prioritising and optimising the applications on the network.

“Anyone who uses their network connectivity for important applications such as voice, retail point-of-sale, credit card transactions, or time critical applications, SD-WAN does a good job of improving the quality of experience of those applications.

“For multisite networks, SD-WAN creates a private network between multiple locations where time-critical applications are used. It is worth pointing out that single site businesses are unlikely to take full advantage of SD-WAN technology. It is an expensive addition to a network, so an organisation needs to be sure it is worth the investment.”

Philip Bindley, managing director of cloud and security, Intercity, said, “SD-WAN is designed to create agility by controlling the behaviour of WAN components with software. This means it allows users to combine the security and reliability of traditional networks with the affordability and simplicity of broadband connectivity, all through one single device.

“SD-WAN also allows companies to create a more cost-effective method of enabling users to access applications and data in a controlled way, be that through corporate or cloud-based services.

“There are lots of benefits to SD-WANs. Flexibility and speed, without the need for fixed lines, are the obvious ones. Also, technology such as SASE, which has grown in importance during remote working, is massively simplified by an SD-WAN.”

Mohit Manral, Colt Technology Services’ global product lead, said, “SD-WAN as a technology started out predominately fitting use cases that were centred around cost-saving, where costly MPLS links were replaced by Internet links with reliability and SLAs guaranteed by service providers.

“This is key, but enterprises now need more. As the technology has matured, additional use-cases concerning security, multi-cloud, remote working, and AI or ML powered analytics have emerged. Today, SD-WAN improves productivity, gives higher quality of experience, accelerates initiatives, and can reduce costs.”

Hartley, from Forcepoint, emphasised the broadening of SD-WAN use cases, with small businesses now finding these solutions valuable. He explained, “SD-WAN fits every organisation, even a small business employing no more than five people. Additionally, there are mid-market and enterprise use cases of cost saving and bandwidth aggregation for expanding limited internet speeds in more rural areas, or limiting capital expenditure on expensive multiprotocol label switching costs.”

Hartley also discussed how he expects SD-WAN technologies to evolve. He added, “Forcepoint has been providing SD-WAN solutions since roughly 2002, before the term was even coined, so we’ve seen the market for these technologies evolve since the beginning.

“What we’re seeing is that the market is moving rapidly to keep up with the demands from customers and the biggest of those demands is application experience.

“This is where we measure not only the traditional side of networking, but we also look at an application and how it is performing, as well as the user’s experience of the app. For example, are you dropping frames on your Teams traffic? Is everyone at that site experiencing the same thing?

“This has two massive benefits: it puts the user experience first so they have the best experience possible, and also helps IT and operations staff identity issues easier and earlier should there still be issues that the SD-WAN automation cannot fix.”

Andrew Napier, product manager, Virtual1, explained that SD-WAN solutions now have to deliver on expectations. He said, “From the initial scramble onto the SD-WAN bandwagon with whatever existing feature vendors felt they could re-paint as SD-WAN capable, we’ve seen an ongoing distillation down into technologies that can deliver some key benefits.

“Routing and switching vendors in particular have realised that just having a box with more than one WAN port on it doesn’t cut the mustard and that the true value of SD-WAN lies in the ability to understand, prioritise and steer business applications. A robust pedigree in security has, quite rightly in our opinion, also come to the fore.”

Lee Broxson, CSO, Jola, discussed the mobile data SIMs the company sells to partners that are deploying SD-WANs for their customers. He explained, “The price, maturity and reliability of multi-network SIMs has seen them move from the obvious back-up solution to primary connectivity in many locations.

“Sites can be up and running within days and SIMs with profiles containing hundreds of networks worldwide means there’s no need for expensive site surveys, prior to deployment. Resellers are seeing recurring revenue within days of a PO, even if the SIM is only being used as a primary until a fixed line can be installed.”

Saunders, from Highlight, said, “We are seeing a big change in how service providers are managing their SD-WAN networks. Many are looking to deliver end-to-end service assurance for both the physical underlying network as well as the virtual SD-WAN overlays.

“Service providers and their customers are using Highlight Service Assurance platform to see the health, stability and load across multiple SD-WAN vendors, alongside underlay connectivity services on which the SD-WAN relies, such as 4G/5G cellular, broadband, Ethernet and MPLS. They can also include LAN elements such as Wi-Fi and switching, to enhance the managed service further.”

Adding value

The channel has a rich heritage adding value to technology deployments, and the SD-WAN space is no different. The channel can add value to SD-WAN deployments in various ways. Saunders, from Highlight, said, “When implementing SD-WAN, the provider needs to do a full assessment of a customers’ existing network usage and technology. Understanding how a customer uses their network will reveal if an SD-WAN deployment is worth it. Once an assessment is complete, the provider needs to be skilled in configuring and deploying SD-WAN equipment and then fine tuning the network.

“Once in operation, a provider shouldn’t leave the customer to fend for themselves, they have an opportunity to offer valuable services to help manage the SD-WAN technology. This means having people to proactively monitor the performance of the network to see how it is being affected by the underlay technology and offering suggestions for improvements.

“Customers want their service provider to act as a virtual member of their IT department. The channel can achieve this by giving intelligent advice based on a thorough understanding of how the customer works and how the network is being used. It is all about offering a more proactive and intelligent service.”

This feature appeared in our July 2022 print issue. You can read the magazine in full here.