Shaping up for SD-WAN

12 March 2018 | Gareth Willmer


How is SD-WAN shaping up the changing enterprise network? Is traditional MPLS networking dead? Gareth Willmer reports

Automation and the move to cloud services are driving the roll-out of SD-WAN, with a view to modernising network infrastructure, reducing costs and getting to market faster. That is all having a significant effect on carriers and their enterprise businesses.

“What’s happening in enterprise networking is huge,” says Josh Goodell, VP of edge solutions at AT&T. “What used to be strictly ‘it would be great if’ scenarios are now realistic outcomes for business committed to digital transformation.”

Some in the industry have voiced concerns in recent years that SD-WAN may cannibalise MPLS revenues. But even though SD-WAN is on the rise, carriers often tend to say they view it as just one part of their service offering. The new technology can, in fact, work well in tandem with traditional technologies such as MPLS and even increase the appeal of it in particular cases, they say.

So at least for now, the role of MPLS seems generally to be changing rather than being phased out of carriers’ product offerings.

“We’ve never thought that SD-WAN and MPLS should be an either/or conversation,” says Goodell. “[Businesses] will have all kinds of sites, but MPLS will be at the core of a lot of these networks.” He says it’s possible that some customers will substitute MPLS with SD-WAN and alternative access technologies, but they are considering a mix of choices for optimal results.

SD-WAN will become even more desirable as data consumption evolves over time and more capabilities emerge, says Goodell. For example, he says, more deployments could be carried out as virtualised network functions on general purpose white-box customer premises equipment rather than purpose-built grey-box CPEs.

On its website, industry consortium the MEF, meanwhile, cites a report that it published with Vertical Systems in January 2017 that surveyed service and technology providers. In that, just 4% of respondents viewed SD-WAN as a competitive threat to their existing connectivity services such as MPLS, while 45% viewed it as a strategic opportunity and 37% as both an opportunity and a threat.

These statistics indicate that the “doom and gloom” scenario is not necessarily the case, says Ralph Santitoro, distinguished fellow at the MEF – and he expects, if anything, that the proportion of those who view SD-WAN as an opportunity will have grown from last year. He says he is not seeing MPLS being replaced or reduced in bandwidth, but organisations may choose to bring up new sites with SD-WAN rather than a new expensive MPLS circuit. “I’m seeing SD-WAN as augmenting existing MPLS,” says Santitoro.

Not dead

“I think it’s very unlikely that SD-WAN will kill off MPLS, because ultimately the way that SD-WAN works is it kind of builds upon infrastructure that’s already there,” says Neil McRae, chief architect at BT Group. “I actually think they’re technologies that will live off each other for a very long time,” he says.

McRae says SD-WAN caters well to certain use cases, such as for connecting to cloud platforms, or if a business has a lot of stores or branches in many places around the world and wants to get them connected up quickly – or, for instance, launch a pop-up store over Christmas. 

But this can vary in other situations. “For your own data centre, your own HQ, for some of your own mission-critical traffic, where you want to absolutely be sure that you’ve got the right service levels, MPLS still has a huge part to play,” says McRae. For the moment, he says, he very much has the sense that the two technologies are complementary.

In addition, he believes that SD-WAN is still unproven in terms of some of the bigger security challenges the industry will face over the coming years – so MPLS can step in here too. “Security still sits at the top of the list of CIOs’ concerns and issues, and MPLS networks have a really strong track record of being able to cope with that,” says McRae.

He points out, meanwhile, that BT’s SD-WAN product Agile Connect, launched last September, has been deeply integrated into the company’s MPLS platforms so that it can take advantage of things like the service’s security solutions and huge PoP base across the globe. In turn, the automation benefits of SD-WAN can feed back into improving the performance of MPLS.  

The overall result is that many of BT’s customers are running a hybrid of technologies such as MPLS, SD-WAN and internet, depending on what works best for different parts of their business, says McRae.

“I genuinely believe that the days of lining up products on a shelf for businesses don’t exist any more.” BT does not seek to promote single technology solutions over others, he says, but the best set of services for solving a particular customer’s needs – which, at the end of the day, is what they’re really interested in.

Verizon similarly sees SD-WAN as just part of the equation. “If you look at SD-WAN, we really see that offering as being part of a broader portfolio which we are calling our virtualised networking services,” says Peter Konings, director of enterprise networks and managed services at Verizon. “In our world, there is never going to be one solution which provides the answer to all questions.” 

Konings points out that 90% or more of its sales opportunities are now in virtualised networking services, but 75% of Verizon’s implementations nevertheless still include MPLS as part of the solution and the company continues to see its MPLS bandwidth grow.

Adding flexibility

Verizon made some significant moves last year to open up and add further flexibility to its SD-WAN offering, firstly by adding whitebox options on top of its universal customer premises equipment (uCPE) portfolio. This service moves towards eliminating the need for enterprises to invest in separate hardware appliances for virtual network functions and towards open hardware, open source architecture rather than vendor-specific platforms.

Then, near the end of last year, Verizon launched an SD-WAN service for wholesale customers. Added to its other services, this gives enterprise customers and wholesalers a variety of options for deploying in collaboration with Verizon, tapping further into the flexible, “mix-and-match” ethos of virtualised services.

Konings says, meanwhile, that by expanding the service to wholesale partners, it opens up the service’s reach to more customers than Verizon would traditionally have interfaced with and enables it to gain a broader geographic reach.

“I think what makes Verizon attractive as well is the fact that we have built out an ecosystem where we are not going to a partner and saying ‘my solution is this hardware-software combination’,” says Konings. “You can pick and choose what makes most sense.”

Separately, Telefonica believes that some traffic that customers have over MPLS will migrate to the internet, but that intelligent splitting of traffic for different uses can create a richer hybrid service and thus be ultimately better for Telefonica and its customers.

“The big difference comparing the networks that we have now and the networks we are going to have with SDN and SD-WAN is the intelligence,” says Eduardo Guardincerri, CMO at Telefonica International Wholesale Services. “If you have the right intelligence and you have both accesses – internet and MPLS – there is no problem. You just have to configure your network and make it happen.”

On top of that, there is an opportunity for Telefonica and its customers to create new virtual security services required for the new wave of networks and functions, says Francisco Santos, head of wholesale services at Telefonica International Wholesale Services.

“We see really that the network is going to evolve in the future to a more dynamic network using these technologies,” he says. “So we are 100% committed with this transformation, because it’s going to be key for the network evolution of the future.”

Evolving market

Meanwhile, Bob Schroeder, vice president of enterprise product management at Spectrum Enterprise, believes that multi-system operators such as Spectrum Enterprise without a traditional MPLS customer base are well-positioned to provide fibre internet and broadband-based SD-WAN services as an alternative to telco incumbents with MPLS.

“Spectrum Enterprise is beginning to see requests-for-proposal [RFP] inquiries from enterprise clients seeking to replace legacy MPLS networks with SD-WAN deployments,” adds Schroeder. The company demonstrated its SD-WAN proof-of-concept last November and has since announced field trials with existing clients – with plans to move to general availability of its managed SD-WAN service later in 2018.

Schroeder agrees that hybrid WAN will extend the life of MPLS for some years, but believes this will pose its own challenge for incumbents because a “tremendous amount” of internal resources are needed to migrate pure MPLS to a hybrid model.

Separately, Mark Lewis, EVP of products and development at Interoute, says SD-WAN is shifting some of the contract value of a service away from local access and towards smart on-premises devices and cloud capabilities, which benefits players like Interoute. 

And Interoute is seeing additional opportunities open up, such as customers with local enterprise networks asking to leverage the company’s cloud and backbone outside their footprint.

To move towards a truly effective SD-WAN environment, though, there is still work to do in standardisation. 

With regard to that, the MEF is working on educating the market and coming up with specifications towards the end of the year. Once standards come into the market more, says Santitoro, then the focus can later start to move towards interoperability.

There is no doubt that the enterprise market is changing significantly with new agile services – and carriers are often providing hybrid offerings to meet these needs. 

Recently, Orange Business Services has, for instance, seen a major transformation among customers, which are moving their applications to the cloud and increasing their use of Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) applications, says Laurent Perrin, marketing director for application driven networks in the company’s Connectivity Business Unit. “Flexibility is really needed by our customers,” he says. “They need a network that adapts.”

There’s “tremendous growth” in this area, adds Hussein Khazaal, VP of marketing and partnerships at Nuage Networks, which works with carriers such as BT and Telefonica on SD-WAN. That, he says, is driven by the need of enterprises to not only boost what they do today, but also to evolve into the future.

And Goodell highlights how he thinks a mix of options will be key for players such as AT&T. “Hybrid connectivity is essential. One size rarely fits all,” he says. “Businesses want to be able to manage their networks more easily. They want the flexibility to mix and match connectivity based on their site-specific needs – application, performance and reliability.”