How the Software-Defined WAN Is Redefining the Edge

Using SD-WAN to intelligently connect Edge locations, multiple clouds, and data centers not only supports today's digital transformation initiatives but also prepares organizations for the future. Learn how.

By Bob Kerr, 5G RAN Technologist, Dell Office of the CTO

The world of data is growing at a mind-boggling rate. Just five years from now, 6 billion consumers — or three-quarters of the world population — will interact with data daily, International Data Corporation (IDC) predicts. And each “connected person” will interact with data at least once every 18 seconds. For organizations, this influx of data brings not only new possibilities but also a need for more agile IT.

As cloud computing moves to the edge, more Internet of Things devices connect to the network and emerging, compute-intense technologies require additional IT resources, demands for connectivity, and network capacity will grow rapidly. Yet the traditional wide-area network (WAN) architecture is not flexible enough to accommodate these changes.

Software-defined WAN (SD-WAN) removes many of the WAN barriers and gives organizations more control over their network. This advanced networking approach redefines how data is consumed at the Edge. With 5G around the corner for many businesses, SD-WAN will play a crucial role in how they innovate.

The SD-WAN Difference

Dell Technologies recently surveyed 4,300 business leaders around the world about their digital transformation initiatives. Nearly 90 percent of those surveyed for the 2020 Digital Transformation Index said the pandemic has revealed a need for more agile and scalable IT to allow for contingencies.

IT agility, however, does much more than help with contingencies. Our study also found that 69 percent of surveyed organizations are currently making significant investments at the Edge. As traffic and data at the Edge continue to grow and the adoption of the hybrid multi-cloud goes into high gear, businesses also need more flexible and agile connectivity.

That’s where software-defined WAN comes in.

As the name implies, SD-WAN provides software-based controls over WAN connections. It decouples the hardware and the control plane (software), enabling both data transport independence and the ability to centralize the controls. Think of it as a “virtualized” WAN that allows network configuration and traffic control without being locked into proprietary hardware.

SD-WAN serves as a connecting fabric between the cloud, data center, and branches. The technology simplifies and centralizes the management of different types of connections, such as landline broadband, wireless 4G/5G, and MPLS (traditional WAN connections).

The automatization and centralization of WAN management can save 61 percent in staffing costs alone, according to research by Nemertes. The disaggregation of the software from hardware brings further savings and other benefits too because businesses are no longer locked into a vendor for years on end.

One of the biggest benefits of SD-WAN is the ability to dynamically control traffic. For example, a mission-critical application that requires low latency (such as drone package delivery, autonomous driving cars, or a telehealth video app at a hospital) can receive priority over Edge computing that’s not as time-sensitive, such as email or video file transfers.

This both improves the user experience and enables organizations to adopt more advanced, high-resource technologies without impacting performance or requiring more network capacity.

Expanding at a compound annual growth rate of 30.8 percent, SD-WAN is one of the fastest-growing components of the network infrastructure market, according to IDC. One of the drivers behind this growth is 5G. Gartner estimates that the number of organizations “using cellular connectivity in SD-WAN rollouts will roughly double from 2020 to 2023 with 5G.”

SD-WAN Is a Game-Changer for 5G

While 5G technology is still nascent, it’s expected to reach speeds of 10 gigabits per second in the near future. That’s about 100 times faster than 4G speeds today. Imagine the innovation possibilities with such supercharged data connection speeds.

Since SD-WAN intelligently routes network traffic, 5G will dramatically reduce data transport times at the Edge. That means users can move large volumes of data to the cloud in real-time, so they can quickly scale resources closer to the Edge source. Even businesses that don’t have compute-intense projects can benefit.

For example, a manufacturing facility could create a private-network SD-WAN model that uses a fixed wireless connection via a deployed 5G network, along with landline broadband internet. SD-WAN would then divide the network traffic so time-sensitive, mission-critical applications like a robotics system on the manufacturing floor connect through 5G, while back-office apps (such as email or web) that don’t need low latency to connect via the landline or over 5G on lower priority as capacity allows.

Another example is retail. Some locations may use landline internet to connect directly to the cloud and other locations may use fixed wireless over 5G. Regardless of how they connect, SD-WAN would enable consistent network performance at all branches, and the routing would be controlled centrally, automatically, and remotely from one control plane at the corporate headquarters.

The synergy between SD-WAN and 5G will also play a critical role in telecommunications. Especially important will be the providers’ ability to separate software from hardware to better control costs and gain flexibility over resource provisioning.

Think of an outlying area that only needs high capacity at specific times, such as a sports stadium during a Sunday game. On Sundays, the nearby highways don’t need as much capacity because of the lower number of traveling cars. That means the 5G carrier could dynamically move the network traffic between the two locations at different times.

By not over-provisioning the network, the carrier would save costs while improving the end-user experience. Today’s networks simply don’t have this kind of software-defined flexibility.

Modernizing the WAN

The DT Index shows that in the next one to three years, 5G will be the third-highest priority investment area: 37 percent of organizations identified 5G infrastructure as a priority and 33 percent called out 5G-ready hardware. This is a clear opportunity for organizations to make the most of 5G and maximize their investment by adopting an SD-WAN model.

A modernized WAN improves users’ ability to handle the changing demands of a data-driven, cloud-enabled world. Using SD-WAN to intelligently connect Edge locations, multiple clouds, and data centers not only supports today’s digital transformation initiatives but also prepares organizations for the future.