Predicting the future: Where next for SD-WAN?

Growing Enterprise Revenues, NFV/SDN Stream

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We outline three possible pathways for SD-WAN evolution. Part 3 of a three-part mini-series exploring SD-WAN technology from an enterprise perspective.

Introduction

This document is the third in a mini-series of three reports which seek to explore SD-WAN technology from an enterprise perspective, covering the challenges that SD-WAN is designed to address, the differing types of SD-WAN product on the market today, and how we envisage SD-WAN-type services evolving in future.

The first two reports in the series are:

Future evolution of SD-WAN

Any decision made about SD-WAN aspects or management must be taken not just in context of enterprises’ current networking challenges, but also in context of how those challenges, as well as networking technology, are likely to evolve. This report assesses where we expect the industry to go next.

At STL Partners, we believe that SD-WAN under its current definition is not an end in itself. All indications are that enterprises are becoming increasingly cloud-centric, and we see no sign of this trend reversing. SD-WAN will no doubt be a key component of the multicloud ecosystem – but it will require an evolution beyond the confines of what is currently being packaged and sold.

In short, existing SD-WAN offerings are just the first step on a longer journey towards integrated, software-driven WAN operations and networking on a broader scale. Enterprises and vendors planning SD-WAN rollout would do well to consider how that evolution could unfold.

As with any new technology, there are multiple pathways that this evolution could follow – none of which are yet well-understood. STL Partners has identified three emerging evolution pathways, which we explain in detail below. The options are:

  1. SD-WAN used as the first step towards SD-Branch: SD-WAN is deployed as a stepping stone technology towards more advanced, integrated management of enterprises’ LANs and branches alongside the WAN.
  2. SD-WAN sold “as a Service”: SD-WAN starts to be offered as a more fully cloud-based software service, free from vendor or hardware-based constraints.
  3. SD-WAN used as an enabling component of edge/IoT platforms: SD-WAN features and infrastructure are integrated with service providers’ edge computing and Internet of Things (IoT) platforms, with sales focus on enterprise automation and process optimisation, rather than the SD-WAN component itself.

These options are of course not mutually exclusive and are likely in practice to be adopted in some combination of the different elements. It is quite feasible, for example, that some service providers will start to “upsell” their existing SD-WAN customers onto a more integrated “SD-Branch” offering (#1) – and to sell a flavour of this same offering as a cloud-based software option (#2). Indeed, we have already seen this happening in the marketplace.

In addition, all three options share two things in common:

  • A move towards cloud-centricity: Their focus is on the LAN and branch, WAN (delivered in an even more flexible, cloud-native way), the edge (and edge computing and IoT), respectively.
  • Increasing use of AI technology: Artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) are pouring into all areas of technology and network infrastructure is no exception. The dynamic nature of traffic patterns over SD-WAN make it a prime candidate for this kind of tech to enable, say, security threat detection or traffic routing optimisation. Whichever direction SD-WAN takes, it is sure to make use of AI/ML.

In this report, we detail each of the three options, with particular reference to how they might benefit both enterprise customers, and those who will provide the SD-WAN service.