Transformation is everywhere, on every organisation’s IT agenda and at the forefront of much C-level debate. One of the most pressing transformational issues remains how to successfully migrate essential functions from the on-prem datacenter to cloud. A subset of that concern is the impact of that migration on the wide area network. In short, what sort of innovations are needed at WAN level to cut the ice, given a raft of complex cloud-related challenges?
Brandon Butler, Research Manager with IDC, has identified a number of trends at the edge of the enterprise network that are causing organizations to rethink how they need to architect networks to reflect todays realities: “Some of these trends have been a long time in the making,” he notes. “For example there’s been a significant shift from the datacenter as the focus of the network, and having a defined DMZ around that datacenter, to the multi-cloud world that is the reality for most organizations today.”
This, he argues, has required a significant change in how organizations think about their network and their brand specifically to compensate for that. A more recent trend is the way COVID has changed how users and devices access distributed applications, and where they’re accessing those applications from.
“In the last two years, we’ve seen the shift from the campus and branch being the central places where users and devices access the network to access being more distributed,” he says. “The network must evolve to reflect this reality.”
A recent IDC survey shows that almost 80% of respondents are thinking about edge computing, and the significant changes needed in their network architecture over the next two years to handle it.
To help overcome the shortcomings of today’s WAN and how it needs to evolve to get over hurdles like edge, SD-WAN has been one of the key technologies, says Butler: “It brings a number of significant benefits to organizations as they’re thinking about transforming their network,” he notes. “It lets them simplify their WAN architecture and the deployment and management of the WAN. It helps improve application availability and performance. Some organizations are using SD-WAN as a way to reduce dependence on MPLS. And it can help speed the deployment of connectivity to new sites. It has been one of the key innovations that we’ve seen in the wide area network in recent years.”
To explore where traditional WAN architectures have fallen short, Butler tapped into the thoughts of various stakeholders. Tata Communications comments that we’ve seen a wholesale change in IT architecture: “Where once all branches of an organisations would connect into the datacenter, because that’s where applications are hosted, now they’re using SaaS and public cloud,” comments the organisation. “This changes the traffic flow and changes demand on the network. Because the traffic is not necessarily going via a datacenter anymore, that’s putting stress on traditional MPLS. And the user experience can often suffer because we send traffic the long way.”
Parag Thakore, Senior Vice President with cloud security platform provider Netskope, agrees that the enterprise world is a more distributed place: “It’s not just branch offices but multi-cloud environments,” he comments. “It all requires consistent, uniform security and performance. People are looking for a uniform platform, one piece of software that can address all these use cases. We have architectural gaps to unify, and then there are functionality gaps as well.”
Thiagaraja Manikandan, President and Group CIO/CTO with food and agri-business company Olam, thinks most enterprises are looking at a hybrid cloud model. “Not exactly 100% cloud, or exactly 100% datacenter,” he says. “It’s a combination of both. But what is baffling to me is that given 20 years of technology change, MPLS remains a primary mode of connecting. Why has connectivity failed to keep pace with what’s happening elsewhere in the technology world? If you walk into any corporate and go to their offices, you find a complete mess.”
The biggest cloud migration issue remains security, according to Tommy Gardner, Chief Technology Officer with HP Federal, the public sector-serving arm of tech giant HP: “You’re opening up vulnerabilities with anything new,” he believes. “It reminds me of the old days of software development when we first realized that people could use software to steal data or take people’s files. It’s when the first hacking began. You would quickly throw a patch in to fill a hole. And you didn’t realize, because of the rapidity of the change you were making, that you were opening up several new vulnerabilities for every one you fixed.”
Butler of IDC notes a number of innovations in the WAN in areas from analytics and visibility through to security and performance. But how can these be implemented and which are priorities?
Manikandan of Olam acknowledges that the CIO wish list is never ending: “Clearly the priority is cost savings with new WAN network technology,” he says. “The last generation of SD-WAN was focused mainly on that aspect.”
Tata Communications says that with a complex network of distributed endpoints, not all applications are in one place and are not always available everywhere: “You have traffic that has to go across long distances, with some applications sensitive to latency and jitter. This is why we are seeing network transformation and a reduction in the proportion of MPLS. MPLS isn’t going away however.”
So how, asks Butler, should migrating organizations think about what to do to ensure that they are ready to compete in any sort of environment, from a macroeconomic perspective? What innovations will matter most?
Gardner of HP Federal says good ideas don’t become an innovation unless the economics are right: “There are a lot of great inventions that are lying on the cutting room floor because they weren’t economically feasible,” he points out. “The warning I give industry is that just because today it costs more to do something new than what you’re doing, you have to consider the cost issue at scale. Straight out of the lab is going to be higher in cost than what the learning curve is going to bring you downstream. And when you’re operating at scale the costs start to drop precipitously, as we’ve seen throughout the whole IT revolution. With cloud, you’ve got to think of the total cost, not just the cost of hardware but operational costs to keep things running. And if you’re operating off a big cloud, every time you click a CPU cycle, there’s a small charge. It may drive you to bring things on premise, which isn’t a bad idea to start with. It protects your data just as well if you’ve got the right protections in place.”
Thakore says in a recent survey by Netskope, two thirds of responding CIOs said adoption of SASE will change how they structure their teams because of the way it brings security and networking together. “These groups were separate,” he notes. “Now, how is the budget going to be structured as you move down to SASE path? CIOs don’t want two different policy managers, two different infrastructures to manage.”
Manikandan of Olam thinks that, post-pandemic, it is clear that the world is becoming more and more tech dependent: “Companies are becoming tech driven, and the network is going to be the nervous system of these businesses,” he says. “If businesses want to survive, they have no choice except to invest in new network technology.”
As Board Member of the Business Innovation Leaders Forum, I speak to a lot of enterprises, and they’re all at some stage of transformation. They have to pay attention to what they have already purchased and what they are about to purchase. Now the challenge is to bring all the elements of that transformation together in a way that’s manageable, and in a way that’s transparent and visible. These are the needs of today, not the future. And as the substrate and the transport continue to evolve, businesses need intelligence on what’s happening in the network. Some enterprises are seeking a managed service provider to help, some are using system integrators, some are doing it on their own. All of these are valid options. Either way, the challenge is not going away.