The widespread availability of cellular wireless services is a game changer for the WAN services market. 5G, for example, can offer data services equal to or faster than wired WAN service options, such as MPLS or internet broadband.
Many 5G services offer new features to enterprise IT teams. 5G promises a number of advancements, including speeds over 1 GB, low latency and network segmentation. While some advancements require future improvements -- for example, network slicing requires a new wireless core system -- existing 5G networks offer equivalent and, in some cases, better performance than comparable wired internet broadband offerings.
Today's 5G networks deliver real-world speeds over 150 Mbps, which is sufficient bandwidth for most branch office requirements. Over the next several years, 5G radio deployments will drive bandwidth capabilities beyond 1 GB with particularly low latency. This will provide plenty of cellular wireless capacity to most branch WAN requirements and, over time, provide significant competition in the $40 billion managed business services market.
Despite the hype around 5G, it is relatively early in its deployment cycle, and the COVID-19 pandemic has hindered carrier plans for rollouts. While coverage is expanding, much of this growth is limited to major metro areas, and operators are just beginning to roll out reasonably priced data plans with unlimited access.
In addition, 5G network slicing, which offers guaranteed quality of service (QoS), is currently only available in select U.S. cities.
What is the potential role of SD-WAN in 5G networks?
When combined with software-defined WAN (SD-WAN), high-speed 5G services provide distributed organizations with improved reliability, rapid provisioning and high-speed bandwidth. And, when SD-WAN combines with fast cellular wireless connectivity, it enables a new WAN architecture with significant benefits to enterprises with large numbers of employees in hybrid or permanent work-from-home (WFH) settings.
SD-WAN introduces IT leaders to new wireless service providers that could complement or, in some cases, replace existing wired services. Many organizations already use LTE at branch locations -- e.g., retail stores and restaurants -- to ensure high availability and reliability in the event of slowdowns or downtime in primary wired circuits. LTE's rapid provisioning time is ideal for pop-ups and other temporary locations.
A more recent use-case example is for business-critical WFH employees that require secondary network access that provides redundancy and application performance benefits when combined with SD-WAN intelligence.
Cellular wireless delivers an additional WAN connectivity option to organizations with remote branch offices or in WFH scenarios. Competition among leading wireless operators -- e.g., AT&T, T-Mobile and Verizon -- around 5G services is driving new unlimited data plan options to organizations that require higher bandwidth at remote work locations with fixed budgets.
5G and SD-WAN: Benefits of using them together
SD-WAN is becoming the standard technology organizations use to intelligently steer traffic over multiple WAN links. It improves internet link security and provides higher reliability and performance, which enables organizations to significantly increase WAN bandwidth capacity at a reasonable price.
SD-WAN technology continues to advance its breadth of functionality -- e.g., for LAN and Wi-Fi -- as well as its native security and traffic management capabilities. As SD-WAN suppliers introduce software-defined branch services, they can offer end-to-end traffic visibility from device to LAN to WAN to cloud environment.
High-speed 5G connections provide IT organizations with another great WAN option to add to their SD-WAN-driven architecture. 5G links are simple and quick to provision and provide link diversity to protect against cable cuts, such as backhoe-caused outages.
As an alternative to current transports -- such as MPLS, DSL, Integrated Services Digital Network and broadband cable -- 5G brings a cableless option that can be easier to purchase, deploy and manage. One key benefit of SD-WAN is the simple management of multiple links for redundancy, load balancing or traffic segmentation. While people might see 5G as a WAN transport, it can also provide an out-of-band management capability, which enables access to network resources via external means.
Some of the main benefits of using 5G and SD-WAN together are the following:
- easy link provisioning;
- connectivity diversity for branch and WFH locations;
- link redundancy and QoS;
- active-active connections with bandwidth and latency performance comparable to MPLS;
- better application performance with network slicing;
- improved security, visibility and traffic management;
- support for edge computing environments;
- increased functionality to branch sites; and
- reasonable costs.
Examples of 5G and SD-WAN services
The rise in the number of mobile locations and WFH employees is driving demand for 5G. The remote workforce trend was amplified beginning in 2020 with the pandemic and is expected to remain a popular workforce option for the foreseeable future. 5G data services can be an ideal partner for SD-WAN WFH deployments, either as a primary circuit for broadband replacement or as a complement to the existing broadband service for redundancy and QoS.
Three real-world examples of cellular and SD-WAN service pairings are the following:
- Citrix. Citrix deployed its SD-WAN service at a large Indian insurance firm. It has over 900 sites with high-speed 4G LTE and internet in an active-active connectivity mode for high reliability.
- Cradlepoint. Cradlepoint deployed its NetCloud service with dual cellular wireless connectivity at a large U.S. retailer with over 1,400 stores. Dual wireless services offer high reliability to connect point-of-sale systems, scanners, security cameras and PCs.
- VMware VeloCloud. VMware VeloCloud deployed software at an insurance firm in the U.S. with more than 10,000 sites, each with a wired -- cable, DSL or fiber -- link along with active-active LTE links.
Recommendations for IT leaders
In most SD-WAN deployments, organizations use cellular wireless as a backup circuit and only when the primary wired connections suffer from performance degradation or outages. As 5G services become widely available and vendors price unlimited data plans attractively, wireless will become a strong alternative option for SD-WAN connectivity.
Some leading SD-WAN services are integrating 4G and 5G services with good results. IT leaders should consider 5G for pop-up or temporary locations and as part of a primary circuit options package -- alongside MPLS and internet broadband -- as unlimited data plans become available.