By Song Toh, Vice President – Global Network Services at Tata Communications
2020 completely redefined the ways companies operate and function. Employees switched to Work from Home overnight to ensure business continuity and customer interactions became completely virtual. However, the network infrastructure of many companies was not sufficiently prepared for this. They had to rely on quick-fix solutions while at the same time thinking about how they could cope with such situations in the future.
For 2021 and the next few years, we’ll see organisations looking at spinning up their digital infrastructure, making it agile, secure and – most importantly – future-ready for any such unforeseen circumstances.
According to a recent survey by IDC, 64% of companies in Germany are planning to deploy modern network architectures in the next 24 months. The pandemic has certainly shifted the priorities and increased the focus on network transformation. While about half of the companies surveyed by IDC see their own network as a pure cost centre, the other 50% attribute a transformative character to it and consider the network as an elementary platform for day-to-day business and even as a key pillar of innovation. The common attribute among all these companies – they have started to understand the relevance and importance of networks.
Stable, agile and secure network for business growth
A more resilient and agile network is a key platform that will enable enterprises to navigate such uncertainties. But how can businesses make their network truly stable, secure and fit for the future, and one that supports their strategy for innovation? Today, distributed locations must be interconnected, cloud environments integrated, data and connection security ensured, and wired and wireless networks integrated. Going forward, connected industrial environments, edge computing, 5G and WiFi 6 will play an increasingly important role in the growth of any organisation. Network managers need to integrate these diverse environments together so that the policies can be consistently applied across the network ecosystem. In addition to this, the interaction between man and machine further adds to the complexity of this diverse ecosystem. In an industrial environment, we have users, pieces of machinery, IoT sensors, servers and robots – all interacting with each other. A network needs to be able to manage the different demands of these diverse network participants – not just of human beings on a web browser.
Cloud-centric architecture is the need of the hour, as it can enable enterprises to make the most of their networks. Building agility at the cloud edge with the ease of deploying different virtual network functions at these edges would enable better connectivity to critical applications in multiple clouds. For example, many enterprises are leveraging our global footprint and reach into over 190 territories to come closer to the cloud so that their mission-critical traffic is best routed to the cloud applications.
Many enterprises have realised that the scalability required for them to deal with unforeseen circumstances like this pandemic is often limited by the hardware-centric model. As a result, the use of software-driven, cloud-native network-as-as-service, and virtualised multi-service cloud edge has become more popular. Enterprises have realised the need for faster deployment of network functions and routing policies. SD-WAN has also emerged as a key solution during this time.
For most companies, in addition to rapid deployment and flexibility, security and reliability play a crucial role when it comes to choosing the right network solution. A secure network infrastructure is extremely important for an enterprise’s complete digital transformation. And this is where another trend comes into play – Secure Access Service Edge (SASE). However, SASE is not completely new as its an amalgamation of many existing tools. SD-WAN and VPN technologies are combined with cloud-native security functions such as Zero Trust, CASB and firewalls.
Most legacy WANs do not have a process to regularly update the customer premises equipment (CPE) with critical patches because each of these CPEs needs to be updated one by one which results in an increase in cost. With a centralised controller, this is another issue that SD-WAN makes more manageable.
All this is intended to reduce complexity on the one hand and increase security on the other. If the integration of security into SD-WAN is not seamless, then the complexity remains, and SD-WAN won’t deliver the value enterprises expect.
SD-WAN enables enterprises to manage hybrid networks more effectively and thus remain competitive. They use a centralised control function to route traffic securely and intelligently across the network. SD-WAN enables better infrastructure and operational processes and can be updated more quickly across multiple sites. Furthermore, it provides additional security, reducing the need for separate firewall appliances. All of this ultimately improves application performance and delivers a high-quality user experience across the network.
There are many use cases for which a software-based network makes sense. In manufacturing, a software-defined hybrid network can secure factories, ensure maximum availability through load balancing, or secure and control partner access via the extranet and generally segment access to applications. With the growing adoption of the hybrid workplace, virtualised networks can help organisations run their network’s functions in the cloud and also enable them to modify their IT architecture – when needed – without moving hardware.
Not a cookie-cutter approach
Sure, SD-WAN has a lot of benefits. But does this approach work as a cure-all for various network problems? The answer is no, not every company has the technical prerequisites to get the most out of this approach. Implementing SD-WAN was a greenfield endeavour a couple of years ago but increasingly SD-WAN is being deployed into an environment where other technology or even another SD-WAN already runs. Businesses need a mature and methodical migration strategy and a clear goal in mind.
In its original form, the biggest weakness of SD-WAN is that it is designed to automate legacy WAN that was increasingly adopting the internet, but it did not originally address the demands for cloud access or SaaS application access. Organisations need to know their applications end-to-end. They need to know which applications create the most traffic on what days of the week and how important they are for the operational business. These organisations need to have access to the set priority of their application traffic because SD-WAN will produce the best results if the branch sites have more than one link, and when applications are identified and classified by their importance in the SD-WAN controller.
In my opinion, enterprises need to identify what network works best for their requirement. Enterprises that have a hybrid IT architecture (some on-premises and some cloud-hosted) would benefit from SD-WAN in its pure form, ie a controller with CPEs at every site. However, if the customer has a pure cloud-based IT architecture with no owned data centres, a SASE (cloud-based gateways and interconnect) would be more suitable to deliver performance and security. The reason is simple: traditional SD-WAN still has more complexity on the branch-based CPEs than we need. Ideally, we lift up this complexity to cloud-based SASE gateways, so the CPEs can be simple routing endpoints that connect a branch to SASE gateways and a global network backbone.
We need to acknowledge that SD-WAN and SASE are trends at the moment and perhaps tomorrow the hot trends would be called something else. However, the hype around them shows one thing clearly – the industry and enterprises have begun to consider and accept security and network as one unit to gain maximum security and flexibility at the same time. Today, to be truly innovative as an enterprise, this is more important than ever.