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 several 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 between 150 and 300 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, the deployment cycle is still developing, and COVID-19 pandemic and supply chain issues hindered original and aggressive carrier plans for rollouts. While coverage is expanding, much of this growth is limited to major metro areas, and operators are just starting to roll out reasonably priced data plans with unlimited access. Also, 5G network slicing, which offers guaranteed quality of service (QoS) and dynamic resource provisioning, is currently only available in select U.S. cities.
In addition, 6G wireless technologies are not expected to hit the commercial market until 2030. So, carriers still have plenty of time to deploy 5G in more areas.
What is the potential role of SD-WAN in 5G networks?
When combined with software-defined WAN (SD-WAN) -- a segment of software-defined networking, or SDN -- 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 that must connect to private data centers, public clouds or wherever their remote network infrastructure resides.
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.
Some other 5G SD-WAN combined use cases include healthcare clinic connectivity, factory automation, connected farms, and oil and gas fields. These market verticals are starting to implement various IoT, AI and data analysis mechanisms into their business workflows to identify trends that streamline processes and avoid network congestion and outages.
Yet another popular use case example is for business-critical WFH employees who 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 and wirelike networking functions 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 connection 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 to reduce the attack surface 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.
- Reasonable costs.
Downsides of 5G and SD-WAN
Carrier 5G availability and cost remain the two biggest hurdles for organizations looking to adopt wireless technologies for SD-WAN connectivity. Availability is a top concern as carriers continue to struggle with keeping up with their rollout timeline goals. This has led some businesses to look at other options while carriers expand into areas where businesses require 5G.
In some cases where 5G is available, some customers are disappointed in the signal strength they are receiving, which leads to less-than-desirable performance. This is likely because the 5G signal does not propagate well through many building obstructions, such as concrete. As a result, businesses may need to retrofit external antennas into their networking closets, which adds additional buildout spend.
Additionally, the cost of any new technology, such as 5G, is always higher at the start of the service lifecycle to help offset carrier Capex and Opex. Organizations looking to reduce costs by integrating 5G into their SD-WAN architectures may end up disappointed. In many cases, businesses are opting to wait until the cost of enterprise-grade, fixed 5G connectivity comes down over time. However, this obstacle should subside as competition among carriers ramps up.
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 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 via a 5G-capable SD-WAN network device offer high reliability to connect point-of-sale systems, scanners, security cameras and PCs.
- VMware VeloCloud. VMware deployed VeloCloud 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.
What's next for 5G and SD-WAN?
5G technologies continue to expand and become increasingly reliable to more areas where branch office connectivity can be achieved with SD-WAN. As a result, businesses are starting to evaluate how they can take advantage of the high speeds and low latency they now have. This includes real-time and latency-sensitive unified communications, like voice and video. In time, remote offices may use 5G services as their primary connectivity link, while using a wired medium as a backup or to offload non-latency-sensitive data across and between the WAN.
Additionally, a 5G SD-WAN combination could be used far more frequently in mobile pop-up business connectivity use cases in the future. This type of setup provides more reliable connectivity for freight asset tracking and short-term special event functions.
Editor's note: This article was updated to include advances in 5G and SD-WAN integrations. This article was originally written by Lee Doyle in 2020 and updated by Andrew Froehlich. Doyle was an experienced IT market analyst and longtime TechTarget contributor who passed away in 2021. You can explore the articles he authored for TechTarget on his contributor page.
Andrew Froehlich is founder of InfraMomentum, an enterprise IT research and analyst firm, and president of West Gate Networks, an IT consulting company. He has been involved in enterprise IT for more than 20 years.