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Analyst View: Managed SD-WAN – Delivering a Better Experience for Highly distributed Organizations

Managed Services

My kids have an expression that goes “Easy-peasy-lemon-squeezy” to describe something that’s fast and easy to do. Things like beating their dad at a video game and a number of other tasks people do would fall into this category. The opposite of easy-peasy-lemon-squeezy is something that is complex and difficult and I can think of no better example than maintaining a high quality of experience for real time or bandwidth intensive applications over broadband.

The migration from MPLS to broadband is well underway as businesses look to cut the cost of the WAN with an eye towards eventually migrating to a software defined WAN (SD-WAN). The concept of using broadband for business is sound as broadband speeds have steadily increased over the past decade and there are so many flavors of it (cable, Ethernet, cellular, etc) that businesses will almost certainly be able to move the primary and secondary link to broadband. Broadband is typically a fraction of the cost of MPLS so there are big savings to be had for the company that is successful with a broadband WAN.

That being said, the MPLS vs. SD-WAN debate is more contentious than it often seems. Getting applications to perform similarly over broadband as they do over MPLS does have some challenges, particularly for real time and bandwidth intensive applications. Users may not notice if the experience of e-mail is impacted but certainly will if voice calls are dropped or if video sessions are choppy.

MPLS, while expensive, does have the luxury of being very consistent from location to location. Also, there are many best practices on how to leverage the classes of service (COS) available in MPLS to ensure applications are categorized properly and run optimally.

Broadband, however, is a bit of the Wild West and there are many technical challenges involved in deploying applications over these types of connections. Below are the top issues that business should be aware of.

  • Variable circuit sizes. It’s easy to get MPLS at almost any speed a customer might want. Broadband speeds can vary widely from under 1MB to multi-gigabit. One of the biggest determining factors on the speed is the wiring available to the location. Some buildings in older areas are limited by aged copper wires where new building likely have fiber. Also, with most broadband networks, the upload and download speeds can vary widely.
  • Inconsistent bandwidth speeds. Some broadband types, like cable and cellular networks are shared mediums. This means if a business happens to be one of only a few entities connected in that regional area, the speed will likely be great, often exceeding the advertised rate. However, if the area is over subscribed, the speed can be significantly lower than what is expected. Often, time of day can play a big factor where high density areas can get bogged down from consumers using the services in the evenings.
  • Network specific issues. Various broadband types have different network issues. For example cellular networks can suffer high packet loss where Ethernet services can drop packets. These issues can impact the performance of business applications in different ways.

These issues can be particularly challenging for large, distributed organizations that are also trying to manage dozens or even hundreds of relationships with various broadband providers around the globe as speeds and quality vary greatly from region to region.

So what are network managers supposed to do? Toss their hands in the air in disgust and give up? That might be one solution but certainly won’t help the business. A better approach is to understand all of the different network optimization technologies available and apply them to different broadband types. For example, quality of service (QoS) can be applied to low speed connections to ensure that important applications have enough bandwidth. Link aggregation can be used to aggregate several networks together and have a single, larger virtual link. Another optimization technique is WAN acceleration that can significantly cut down on network traffic and make TCP based applications, such as e-mail, perform better on long distance connections.

If you’re considering the shift to a broadband network and are scared of the unknown, I understand why. However, with the right optimization technologies and the right architecture, broadband of any kind can give performance equivalent to MPLS at a much lower cost. Given the complexity of networking today, the process of applying the myriad of optimization tools to the wide range of broadband types is not simple. A good option for distributed organizations is to leverage the skill set of a managed service provider (MSP) to help with the transition.