kentoh - Fotolia

COVID-19 speeds SD-WAN evolution to elastic infrastructure

The next phase of SD-WAN requires elastic infrastructure and distributed edge access to better support remote workers. The COVID-19 pandemic is accelerating that evolution.

The COVID-19 pandemic has inundated the world with terms like the new normal and remote work, forcing enterprises to consider how their response to the pandemic will shape their future.

Ready or not, most enterprises had to accelerate their digital transformation strategies due to stay-at-home orders amid coronavirus concerns. Remote workforces grew, putting an increased strain on enterprise infrastructure and disrupting business continuity. Video conferencing adoption spiked, and remote access strategies were tested.

But the global pandemic is also shaping broader discussions about how IT and technology will change in response to the crisis. During the recent ONUG Digital Live conference, virtual sessions covered the familiar topics of multi-cloud, cybersecurity and software-defined WAN (SD-WAN), while the overarching topic of the pandemic's effects percolated throughout the online event.

Elastic infrastructure is the new normal

Before the pandemic, enterprises were gradually adopting technologies like automation, infrastructure as code, network as a service, multi-cloud and remote access. As the pandemic swept across the globe, however, enterprises quickly prioritized technology that could enable their remote workforce, according to Steven Wood, Cisco's principal engineer of enterprise architecture and SD-WAN.

"We're seeing an acceleration of some of these use cases because of this pandemic across the world, especially around remote access and elastic infrastructure," Wood said during an ONUG SD-WAN working group virtual session.

Essentially, elastic infrastructure mimics cloud models, which offer enterprises the ability to adapt, expand or cut back services as needed. This requires a consumption-based model and a guarantee that users can access the service, regardless of their location.

[SD-WAN] costs are going to shift from dedicated equipment to more service economics.
Steven WoodPrincipal engineer of enterprise architecture and SD-WAN, Cisco

"Elasticity is key," Wood said. "What we're seeing, especially now with the COVID-19 pandemic, is the future of networking is going to be like the cloud. We need to have elasticity so people can turn up, turn down and expand infrastructure on demand."

SD-WAN evolution and the edge

Two major factors in elastic infrastructure are edge access and SD-WAN, especially as the workforce becomes more remote and mobile. Distributed users need to access services that reside in different locations, such as SaaS and public cloud applications.

"The underlay network is really changing from what it was before when SD-WAN originally came about," Wood said. "We have cloud edges, colocation points and cloud exchanges, and 5G adoption is coming. So, overlays like SD-WAN need to evolve to meet and take advantage of those changes."

For SD-WAN, this means an evolution from a traditional focus on branch connectivity to one that supports more complicated access requirements for corporate resources, said Nuno Ferreira, vice president of technology at Volterra, a cloud services company based in Santa Clara, Calif. These remote access designs need to provide adequate UX and connectivity to enable employee productivity and avoid congestion.

With a more elastic SD-WAN infrastructure that has distributed edge access, enterprises will be able to place functions and services where their users need them, said Chris Wade, co-founder and CTO of Itential, an Atlanta-based network automation vendor.

"It's about function flexibility within the SD-WAN ecosystem, so we can be flexible on where our users are located, and we can still get the same policy and security that people have built into their SD-WAN ecosystems, which are centralized on the branch," Wade said.

ONUG Digital Live screenshot
ONUG SD-WAN working group panelists discuss the trends driving SD-WAN evolution.

A shift in SD-WAN costs

As SD-WAN evolves to support a more distributed edge, the associated costs and how enterprises consume SD-WAN will shift as well. More and more, SD-WAN will converge with other network and security functions, leading to a cloud-like model, according to Marco Rodrigues, vice president of product and solutions at Volterra.

"The ideal SD-WAN solution moving forward should provide multiple services in a software stack -- such as routing, security, load balancing, API gateways and advanced security -- and it should be SaaS-driven to drive a consumption-based model for enterprises," Rodrigues wrote in the ONUG session chat. The converged software stack results in lower Capex and Opex costs across different enterprise teams, he added.

Cisco's Wood agreed. Companies will be able to turn their SD-WAN services up or down based on their demands. If they suddenly need to provide SD-WAN access to remote workers, for example, companies will have the elasticity to adapt as needed. This change enables enterprises to optimize costs, he said.

"You're going to see the cloud economics start to prevail in what was traditionally an equipment- and infrastructure-based economics of the past," Wood said. "[SD-WAN] costs are going to shift from dedicated equipment to more service economics."

Dig Deeper on Network infrastructure

Unified Communications
Mobile Computing
Data Center