Exploring the evolution and benefits of SD-WAN in 5G and LTE environments
Before the adoption of popular GPS apps such as Waze or Google Maps, getting from point A to point B was little more than an educated guess. Today, navigation apps intuitively examine each possible path to generate the most efficient route based on traffic volume, travel time, available alternative routes, and custom user preferences such as mode of transportation.
SD-WAN operates in a similar manner. This network technology functions as an intelligent traffic calculation tool by choosing the optimal path for data while providing alternate routes when network traffic paths become congested. With a variety of WAN links and policies in place, data transport routes can be customized based on performance, priority, user, and application.
There are an infinite number of broadband use cases available today, so it seems obvious that successful enterprise networks must have an SD-WAN solution in place. However, that hasn’t always been the case. Let’s explore the history, evolution, and future of SD-WAN.
SD-WAN history: from MPLS to 5G
Before SD-WAN became a mainstream networking solution, Multiprotocol Label Switching (MPLS) was the tried-and-true choice for network traffic optimization in branches and data centers. For more than a decade, MPLS has provided dependable performance through guaranteed service-level agreements (SLAs). Still, the technology is often cost-prohibitive and can take months to provision, making it difficult for businesses to scale rapidly. Enterprises needed a new way to optimize traffic on their networks.
Just as modern GPS applications edged out printed MapQuest directions, SD-WAN technology has emerged as a formidable challenger to MPLS. With the rise of cloud-based services and increasingly complex networks, SD-WAN offers enterprises a solution that can not only save money, but also increase agility and optimize network traffic through WAN optimization, intelligent traffic handling, and link bonding.
Bonded links can be any combination of wired or cellular network connections, creating custom traffic paths and redundancies that offer more capacity, improved performance, and reduced latency. These paths are regulated by dynamic, policy-based routing, making SD-WAN easier to manage and maintain compared to its predecessors, particularly on large networks.
Once mostly considered a network failover solution, 5G and LTE are now more often used as both primary and secondary links in SD-WAN architecture. Use of cellular links can result in faster delivery times — often with zero-touch provisioning — reducing the time and resources required for deployment.
For its evolution to be successful in a maturing 5G environment, SD-WAN must consider cellular-centric attributes, such as available bandwidth and data usage, as well as support for standalone network cores and 5G network slicing.
5G network slicing explained
Network slicing technology allows cellular network providers to create multiple virtual networks or “slices” on top of a single shared network. Imagine network slicing as a pizza with each slice carefully crafted for its unique consumer: olives for the picky toddler, sausage for dad, and Mediterranean toppings for the neighbor. Similarly, network slices each have their own distinct characteristics, including latency, throughput, security, and bandwidth — all on a shared “crust.”
Network slicing is only available on 5G networks with a standalone core, and each virtual network slice serves a defined business purpose.
- The Enhanced Mobile Broadband (eMBB) network slice is designed for use cases that involve large amounts of data and require high-speed connectivity and low latency. Focused on human-centric applications, this includes activities such as mobile gaming, social networking, and on-the-go entertainment mostly performed through mobile devices such as laptops, tablets, and smartphones.
- The Ultra-Reliable Low Latency Communications (URLLC) network slice is built with rigorous criteria for ultra-low latency, availability, and reliability. This slice caters to use cases that require precision and rapid response, such as autonomous vehicles, augmented and virtual reality (AR/VR), robotics, remote-control applications, and real-time human-machine collaboration.
- Massive or Critical Machine Type Communications (mMTC or cMTC) slices provide extensive network coverage for IoT devices such as sensors, trackers, wearables, and meters that send or receive small amounts of data. In these scenarios, data transmission requires minimal power, allowing devices to conserve battery life.
- Public safety slices are reserved for government and public safety agency needs. These slices support features such as push-to-talk, IoT sensors, and remote audio and video feeds that require high bandwidth, high reliability, and low latency.
If none of these established network slices meet the needs of a business, carriers can also create custom slices. But, to effectively steer traffic to its designated slice, each enterprise edge router must have SD-WAN capabilities to establish multiple modem WAN interfaces that align with the carrier-defined slices.
What are the benefits of 5G network slicing?
In unsliced networks, devices and applications often have access to more resources than they need, leading to wasted resources that could be better utilized elsewhere. Network slicing allows businesses to control and preserve resources on a more granular level by assigning specific resources to different types of network traffic based on their use case.
Each network slice is home to its own set of resources including quality of service (QoS), security configurations, and latency requirements. This ensures that each application continuously receives the resources it needs and isn’t dipping into those it doesn’t. For example, the resources available in a network slice supporting high-definition streaming video would be different from the slice used to monitor an IoT lighting system and different still from the slice supporting emergency response systems.
In addition to creating tailored solutions for network traffic needs, slices can provide wired-like SLAs over wireless networks, making it a simpler solution compared to traditional QoS and costly MPLS technologies — the key to encouraging companies to integrating cellular links into their SD-WAN architecture. This gives businesses the opportunity to expand into nonwired areas, with a guarantee that network connectivity standards will be upheld by carriers, ultimately providing growth opportunities for use cases such as monitoring and control of industrial equipment, remote surveillance, augmented on-site experiences, and more.
What is the ideal SD-WAN solution for the 5G era?
For organizations to fully harness the benefits of 5G and Wireless WAN (WWAN), they must have a 5G SD-WAN solution specifically tailored to the distinctive characteristics of cellular networks. The ideal 5G SD-WAN solution offers:
In-depth cellular insights
Cellular insights are critical for IT professionals to effectively manage enterprise networks. These insights include 5G and LTE coverage maps, cellular data usage reports, cellular health, real-time location tracking, geofencing alerts, and more. Using these metrics, administrators can understand how the network is performing and identify areas that need improvement before they become major problems.
Having access to highly detailed insights and cellular metrics enables network administrators to provide proactive support, which in turn improves users’ quality of experience (QoE). To further enhance QoE, cellular network traffic can be identified, labeled, and directed toward the WAN link that offers the best performance, and application-based policies can be created to prioritize critical business applications. Employing each of these tactics through an SD-WAN solution ensures essential operations aren’t disrupted and users maintain a seamless, satisfactory experience.
Application-centric traffic steering over WWAN
Modern SD-WAN solutions can create application-based policies capable of directing traffic to various links, WAN interfaces, or cellular providers, while taking such factors as signal strength, latency, jitter, and data usage into consideration. Steering traffic across mid- to high-band 5G cellular network connections will result in the greatest QoE for each application.
Simplicity for scalability
SD-WAN evolution that supports cellular attributes is critical for scaling fixed and temporary sites, IoT, vehicles, and remote workers, as well as the transition of enterprises from conventional networks to LTE and 5G WWANs. A 5G-optimized SD-WAN solution can provide both the resiliency and flexibility needed for future, rapid growth.
What is the relationship between SD-WAN and security?
Organizations are increasingly using SD-WAN to address critical security concerns such as reducing attack surface even as edge computing and IoT continue to expand. SD-WAN architecture enables quick provisioning of security policies within a cloud-based, centralized management system for thousands of devices, and helps protect them all with a strongly encrypted tunnel.
If tunnels are involved, is SD-WAN just VPN? Not quite. While SD-WAN and VPNs are both used to securely connect devices over the Internet, they serve different purposes.
The primary purpose of a VPN is to create a secure tunnel between a device and a remote server, usually in another location. They are typically designed to send all traffic over a single network link while masking user locations and keeping their data and online activity hidden from prying eyes and potential hackers.
SD-WAN, on the other hand, is used to optimize network traffic across multiple WAN links such as cable, MPLS, LTE, or 5G, and manage them as a single virtual network. Then — just as Google Maps or Waze does during rush hour — SD-WAN technology selects the best available path based on application-specific policies, network conditions, and business requirements, helping network traffic reach its destination with lower latency, better performance, and lower costs.
A simple VPN solution likely would suffice for a small organization connecting only a few users. However, larger organizations that prioritize network performance, reliability, and scalability will benefit from evaluating cloud-based SD-WAN security solutions. That’s because SD-WAN brings intelligence to enterprise networks, helping them respond quickly to external threats and changes in the network. SD-WAN technology achieves this by:
- Configuring granular access on a per-site basis to limit the types of traffic traversing the network
- Encrypting traffic through tunnels, similar to zero trust solutions
- Improving network visibility by identifying and monitoring applications, equipment, and users to easily pinpoint anomalies or security issues
- Providing access to secure web gateways (SWG) and cloud access security brokers (CASB)
When using 5G as a link in their SD-WAN solution, network security becomes even more robust thanks to native 5G security features centered on subscriber privacy and authentication.
Does SD-WAN ROI add up to enterprise value?
Implementing the right SD-WAN solution and its complementary technologies can provide a host of benefits for a growing enterprise network, particularly in the areas of performance and security, which can deliver surprising returns on investment (ROI) in addition to reduced data and infrastructure costs.
A large portion of SD-WAN ROI comes from deploying diverse WAN links to reduce network downtime. Think of this as building more traffic routes along a busy commute. The more ways to get from point A to point B, the less likely you are to be slowed down if one route is blocked, which has less negative impact on your business compared to the outcome if no alternative routes were available.
By shifting some or all SD-WAN links to cellular, businesses can improve activation times and network performance, leading to improved QoE and better uptime in sites and vehicles. The ability to also steer traffic away from certain WAN links leads to more efficient data rate plan management and performance of business-critical applications.
Future of SD-WAN
Wireless-first networking solutions are a pivotal piece of SD-WAN evolution as the adoption of 5G and LTE as enterprise WAN links continues to rise. Alongside the preparation for up-and-coming 5G network slicing capabilities, SD-WAN technology must also advance in other ways to meet the needs of enterprise businesses in digital economy.
Enterprise network transformation is being driven by a crucial trend which aims to enable users to manage their networks — including SD-WAN — more efficiently, while enhancing their QoE. Single-pane-of-glass management not only makes this possible, but also breaks down siloed management and ensures policies are consistent throughout the network. Inconsistencies can be targeted even quicker with the deployment of machine learning and artificial intelligence (AI) capabilities into the SD-WAN platform.
The convergence of security and network solutions is also a trend on the forefront of SD-WAN, and is evident in the growing movement to integrate cloud-managed SD-WAN with security solutions such as zero trust solutions including ZTNA for remote access.
Just as a city looks ahead to develop new roads and modes of transportation to accommodate changes in populations and traffic patterns, enterprises businesses must look ahead and constantly re-evaluate the ever-evolving network edge to ensure their SD-WAN architecture supports users, applications, and devices in all types of environments. By embracing opportunities for efficiency in network management and choosing a trusted partner to execute a cohesive network and security strategy, the future of SD-WAN is unbounded.