The Pros and Cons of SD-WAN for Communications Service Providers

April 19th, 2017

It may not come as a surprise, but cloud application adoption increased by 71% in 2015—and communications applications are leading the way. Voice, video and collaboration tools are increasingly moving to the cloud for companies of all sizes. Customers at every level expect the delivery of cloud services with the same level of quality that traditional MPLS networks offered in years past.

The latest trend is for communications service providers (CSPs) to shift toward software-defined wide area networks (SD-WAN) to increase the value of their offerings. Customers will no longer pay a premium for high-reliability, low-latency, secure MPLS links because bandwidth is becoming more commoditized every day—an SD-WAN can help solve this challenge.

While many industry pundits hold SD-WAN as a saving grace for CSPs, there are pros and cons to supporting communications services with this networking technique.

The Benefits of SD-WAN for CSPs

Unlike traditional MPLS networks, an SD-WAN helps give customers direct access to cloud applications such as Office 365 or Salesforce—even when they’re remote. By taking the complexity of private networking out of the equation, the SD-WAN simplifies service delivery channels over public internet.

Customers might have difficultly managing all of the equipment necessary for an SD-WAN. This is where CSPs can carve out new revenue streams. Rather than struggling to maintain MPLS-driven revenue streams that are continuously diminished by OTT players (such as upsetting frame relay, internet connectivity, or leasing lines), CSPs can increase the agility and flexibility of their services by bundling multiple consumer internet connections with an SD-WAN.

According to Lee Doyle, the Principal Analyst at Doyle Research, CSPs can expect the following benefits from SD-WAN implementation:

  • Cost savings: Internet connections can cost up to 50% less than MPLS links
  • Greater performance: Using an SD-WAN opens your services up to a new range of speeds, taking you into the gigabit Ethernet range for more advanced features.
  • Faster provisioning compared to MPLS: Shifting to an SD-WAN enables much faster provisioning times and is more scalable than traditional infrastructures.
  • Minimize disadvantages of the internet: Public internet has generally been known for poor reliability, unpredictable latency, and weak security. Connecting via an SD-WAN mitigates these issues to improve your service offerings.

While all of the benefits are valid, the discussion surrounding SD-WAN implementation too often revolves around a comparison to MPLS networks. In a broader sense, using an SD-WAN for communications service delivery isn’t as perfect as many make it seem.

Broader Benefits Could Be a Weakness for SD-WAN

The technical benefits of an SD-WAN are attractive enough for any CSP. However, a higher-level perspective of the technology shows the weaknesses of SD-WAN for communications.

The broader benefits of SD-WAN for unified communications are improved quality of service (QoS), stronger security, smooth interoperability, and increased visibility into traffic. These advantages loop back to discussions regarding firewalls vs. intelligent edges. Much like firewalls, an SD-WAN is not voice/video aware, making the approach less attractive from a CSP perspective.

Because an SD-WAN is focused on the network as a whole and not just a communications infrastructure, there is always the chance for packets to fall through the cracks and cause problems for customers. And without a highly-focused level of visibility into customer environments, troubleshooting won’t be as smooth as customers expect.

Implementing an SD-WAN for a communications infrastructure could seem like a major success until a particular set of issues in a particular environment where things just don’t work arise. Having a system that isn’t voice/video aware means there will always be a service blind spot. 

A More Focused Approach to Service Delivery

Despite what is written throughout the industry, MPLS and SD-WAN are not the only options for a communications infrastructure. In fact, some thought leaders believe that the two work best when supporting each other, leaving a limited ability to adapt to communications innovation in the future.

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