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Artificial Intelligence & Machine Learning: SD-WAN is Evolving

April 16th, 2018 by

Machine Learning and AI Promise to Take SD-WAN Into the World of Intent

Last month, my mother-in-law’s best friend came to town, so she rounded up “the gals” for dinner and drinks. A night without the kids is rare for me (and significantly more relaxing) so I found myself in the midst of half a dozen 60 to 70-year-old women. The conversation eventually got to technology; how different and difficult it is for their generation to embrace it (though all had smartphones in their pockets). They’ve noticed facial recognition on Facebook; same for police cameras. One lady going to France next month raved about Google translate. Another nonchalantly mentioned a recent ride in a self-driving Tesla.

AI and Machine Learning: SD-WAN is Evolving

As tech savvy as they seemed, I didn’t dare try to explain how artificial intelligence and machine learning play a role in all of these things (or in what I do in my chosen profession). Though both have most definitely started to touch our daily lives, no matter what your age.

What changed? How did my mother-in-law and her friends start benefitting from AI without knowing it? First, compute power is now big enough for the amount of data that needs to be gathered, sorted, calculated and stored to make AI happen. Second, neuro-networks only became real rather recently, and we have since shown that we can train computers via deep (machine) learning. And finally, steady advances in enterprise networking have made it possible to conduct real time transactions with cloud-based AI solutions to put all that data to work on an increasingly broad basis.

Intent based networking on the mainstream horizon

Network transformation has progressed in leaps and bounds, but it’s really only just begun. Our solutions architecture team has been actively evaluating intent-based network technology and we’re close to moving ahead. A few years ago, the advent of SD-WAN made separating the control and routing planes possible. Windstream SD-WAN Concierge allows customers to set their own routing policies, based on what SLAs are more important to their unique business needs (availability, jitter, latency, etc.). Providing our customers’ unprecedented network visibility and control, such as identifying which applications are using the most bandwidth, and prioritizing how that needs to change to deliver against business and customer experience objectives.

Now imagine if instead of asking customers to define how much jitter/latency is acceptable on circuit 1 prior to switching traffic to circuit 2, we asked them to more broadly define their ultimate intent. How much bandwidth does each site need? As well as when, and under what conditions? An intent based system intelligently identifies the appropriate parameters and configurations, and automatically re-routes their traffic. Truly zero touch this time, giving customers visibility without exposing too much complexity.

The future of networks is closer than you think

Today, our industry leading fully-managed SD-WAN Concierge solution has the intelligence to tell network/IT leaders which applications use the most of their bandwidth. Along with the power to make changes to how they access bandwidth based on that data. Tomorrow, with the addition of intent based network functionality, we will also be telling them where their network investment dollars went, and will automagically re-route their traffic to meet their intent. IT leaders (and those who determine IT budgets) want to know how much money their cloud applications are costing them every minute. And they want to use that information to influence that spend. It won’t be long until they can – the network as a platform has never been closer.

At that point, our network becomes a huge sensor, comprised of a large multi-dimensional data set with the ability to detect anomalies. A lot of interesting and hard to see relationships live in multi-dimensional data. So, every time any network element is misconfigured (which can happen on occasion) our network learns from it. Over time, it makes the best decisions given all the data it has collected, processed and computed. This is predictive analytics; the creation of SD-WAN policies based on machine learning.

This, fellow futurists, is the network and digital transformation our engineers at WE have embarked on. And we are closer than ever to delivering it!

Now if only I can figure out a way to explain this to my mother-in-law and her friends…

For Mid-Market Organizations, Customization Is One of SD-WAN’s Greatest Values

January 26th, 2018 by

Discussions about SD-WAN often emphasize its general advantages compared to traditional data networking: lower cost, virtually zero downtime, and simplified expansion and updating. While those are benefits that SD-WAN adopters can expect, generalizations can give the impression that all SD-WAN implementations are alike, a one-size-fits-all solution.

As I’ve written previously in this space, that is far from the case for mid-market enterprises seeking maximum value from SD-WAN.

That’s because gaining full benefit from SD-WAN inevitably requires that it be tailored to an organization’s unique networking needs. This is especially true of mid-market enterprises, where one organization’s needs can stand in stark contrast to those of another similarly sized, yet fundamentally different, organization.

Fortunately, one of SD-WAN’s primary benefits is flexibility, which mid-market customers can use to great advantage.

Start with your needs, not the solution

Because SD-WAN is software-defined, it offers optimization that isn’t as easily achieved with hardware-defined, on-premises WAN solutions. SD-WAN is inherently more capable of being what it should be, and that’s one of its greatest values.

In an article I recently wrote for CIOReview, I compared three mid-market SD-WAN use cases. One of them, which reflects a relatively common implementation, is that of a restaurant chain with 50 locations throughout the country and projections for steady growth ahead. Some of the primary SD-WAN needs associated with such a customer include:

  • Ready scalability to accommodate growth
  • Security in handling credit card payments
  • Minimum 20 Mbps download speed to support customer and employee Internet usage
  • A high level of customer support to ensure uptime of all locations

If your own organization is highly similar, the SD-WAN solution described in the use case as meeting these needs might be perfectly suitable for you.

But what if your organization is not expecting significant growth? If rapid scalability isn’t required, emphasis is better placed on more pressing factors.

What if your organization doesn’t handle credit card payments? It will still have security needs, which can range from basic to more stringent due to the requirements of the industry it serves – how are those security needs best served?

What if your organization needs either more or less download speeds across locations? Is streaming video an essential part of what you do? Does the need for download speed vary widely, such as 50 Mbps at headquarters, 20 Mbps at regional centers, but minimal bandwidth at remote locations?

In the use case example of a restaurant chain, locations are typically within urban areas served by robust telecom infrastructure. What if some of your locations are in markets where infrastructure is less robust?

These are just some of the many factors that must be taken into account for SD-WAN optimization.

Needs assessment is the starting point

The need for customization is one reason so many organizations grow to value a managed service vs. a do-it-yourself approach the further they get into it – skilled tailoring usually proves to be essential.

Because simply put, if there were a one-size-fits-all “SD-WAN in a box” available for purchase by mid-market enterprises, it would prove satisfying to at best a slim minority of those who purchase it – and would disappoint a great many others. That’s because the starting point of an optimized solution isn’t SD-WAN itself.

The most appropriate starting point is a thoughtful and informed needs assessment driven by an SD-WAN supplier that is highly sensitive to the many ways in which this remarkable technology can be best fitted to the uses that will be expected of it. If you choose this path, you’re off to a great start in the transition to SD-WAN.

SD-WAN Has Undeniable Benefits – Will You Get a Return on the Investment?

January 19th, 2018 by

SD-WAN offers a wealth of advantages over traditional wide area networks, including an unprecedented combination of cost optimization, virtually zero downtime, and greatly increased flexibility in the deployment of new locations, services, and policies.

A prudent pursuit of those advantages should, of course, include building a business case for the transition. As with any potential change to existing legacy technology with a newer solution, consideration of SD-WAN begs the question: What return can we expect on the investment?

An accurate answer to that question must take into account several factors about the adopting enterprise, as WAN complexity means that a single solution will never provide exactly the same return for all adopters. Every enterprise is to some degree unique in terms of infrastructure, geographic locations, IT strategy and architecture/application roadmaps, all of which affect SD-WAN ROI. Because of that, financial benefits for Company A may be significantly different from the financial benefits for Company B.

So yes, SD-WAN will unquestionably deliver networking advantages. Now, what’s the business case?

A tool for quantifying SD-WAN ROI, specific to your enterprise

To help inform the business case for SD-WAN, Windstream provides an SD-WAN ROI calculatorthat accounts for influencing factors that can be unique to each enterprise. This tool’s analysis follows the same process Windstream undertakes with any customer navigating its own WAN options.

For many enterprises, the ROI calculator supports a clear financial case for SD-WAN. For some other enterprises, it may reveal that any transition to SD-WAN should be based on non-financial considerations, such as a pressing need to reduce network downtime and improve network security. Either way, it’s important to know.

Getting an accurate picture for your own enterprise with the Windstream SD-WAN ROI calculator takes just a few minutes, in which you answer key questions about ROI influencers. You’ll know the answers to most questions immediately. For the few requiring answers not necessarily at your fingertips, the calculator offers the option of using default values based on industry averages.

(As an added extra, the calculator asks you to weigh a number of WAN challenges you face from low to high – and will show you how your choices compare with your peers who have gone through the same exercise.)

Once you’ve provided input, the Windstream SD-WAN ROI calculator will respond with the estimated value you can derive from implementing a SD-WAN, relative to your priority challenges. The calculator will quantify total annual value in terms of both direct benefits and indirect benefits – complete with a personalized report.

There is no time like the present to run the numbers.

If you’ve begun investigating SD-WAN, you’ve almost certainly encountered claims about cost savings. If you’re skeptical about blanket statements, you can now find out for yourself how much ROI your business could achieve by evolving to SD-WAN.

So pour yourself a cup of coffee – or whatever you do in these situations – sit back, and let the Windstream SD-WAN ROI calculator provide you with answers that can help you move forward. You may be amazed at what you find out.

When it comes to optimizing mid-market enterprise networks, one size does not fit all

August 25th, 2017 by

Wouldn’t it be nice if everything was Plug and Play? We all crave that kind of simplicity in our lives, but sometimes simplicity leads to oversimplification that becomes counterproductive. In the network space, we see this a lot with mid-market companies who would welcome the types of solutions geared for smaller organization but which just can’t seem to scale to their needs. At the same time, they often lack the resources of many larger enterprises who can more easily apply the time and money required to bring complex projects to fruition.

I’ve most certainly seen this in our ongoing development of SD-WAN solutions designed for mid-market needs, and in first hand discussions with IT leaders in such organizations. They know they need a new, cloud-ready, future friendly network architecture but they are pre-disposed to feeling exhausted by the concept of getting such a project underway.

With SD-WAN, one size fits all does not apply

A number of companies in the SD-WAN space seem to understand this mindset and there are no shortage of promises about how simple it can be to make the move. This can be quite a carrot to those companies that have reached the limits imposed on innovation and growth by their existing pre-Internet traditional network designs.

The problem is, while customers know they want SD-WAN, they are also pain and risk averse. So they are wary of false “one size fits all” promises some solutions imply. That’s actually smart when it comes to SD-WAN, where every implementation is going to be unique, since every company is unique, with different applications, legacy technology, goals and objectives, etc.

I did a profile of a few such companies in a piece I wrote recently for Channel Vision Magazine, which details the dramatically different needs of several different kinds of companies. Whether you are a channel partner or potential mid-market SD-WAN customer, it offers a good picture of how to evaluate SD-WAN solutions to best suit your unique specific current and future needs.

This sort of insight is what led our team at Windstream to launch a fully-managed SD-WAN solution where our own expert team works with each customer to plan, implement, manage, monitor and optimize the solution to achieve the highest degree of success.

It can also be helpful to work with a channel partner or a network service provider that offers a range of professional services, including the ability to do a comprehensive review of the company’s technology needs and business strategy prior to even talking about possible solutions. While the answer to your own specific needs may not always be a simple one, this approach does promise to make life a bit easier for those in IT as they plan their network evolution to adapt to a cloud and mobile centric future.

SD-WAN vs. SDN: The Differences are in the Details

June 8th, 2017 by

Over the past 12 months the buzz around SD-WAN has exploded. It’s becoming to networking what the Cloud has become to infrastructure and applications. Yet, while the concept of a Software Defined WAN is generally understood, it’s often confused with its technology parent, Software Defined Networking (SDN). So I thought it was about time someone explained the difference.

SD-WAN & SDN: similar in many ways, starting with the “SD”

Both SD-WAN and SDN have a common heritage, beginning with the separation of the Control Plane and the Data Plane. Both are designed to run on commodity x86 hardware, both can be virtualized, and both support the integration of additional Virtual Network Functions (VNFs) such as security, or WAN acceleration.

SDN was built to support the modern computing needs found in Local Area Networks (LANs) as well as in Service Provider networks (for example, by our company to deliver wavelength services). The goal was to develop dynamic, flexible, scalable connectivity to support changing demands in the DC (data center) and on core networks. SDNs are directly programmable, providing an agile centrally managed platform that decouples the Control Plane – decisions about where traffic is routed – from the Data Plane – which determines how traffic is forwarded.

These same underlying principles also power SD-WAN. That said, SD-WAN and SDN are definitely not the same thing.

SD-WAN vs. SDN: Understanding the differences

Like many relatives, SDN and SD-WAN look a good bit alike, but you often find that, whereas the pear never falls too far from the tree, some pears may develop a different taste/color. To start with, SD-WAN focuses on providing software defined application routing to the WAN, or Wide Area Network, and on connecting an organization’s geographically distributed locations (headquarters, data centers, branch offices, remote and mobile users), on a national or global basis. While on the other hand, SDN is primarily focused internally, within the LAN (locally) or within the Service Provider’s core network.

There are a number of other essential differences, including:

  • SDN is completely programmable by the customer or user, and allows for efficient change and configuration management. While SD-WAN is built on SDN technology, the programming is handled behind the scenes by the SD-WAN vendor, eliminating the complexity for the end user.
  • SDN is focused on the internal network, be it the LAN or the core service provider network. While SD-WAN is focused on enabling connections between networks and users over the WAN.
  • SDN is enabled by NFV, Network Function Virtualization, providing multiple virtualized network functions via software that until now were previously built into proprietary, closed systems. In contrast, SD-WAN provides software defined application routing that can be virtualized and run either virtually or on an SD-WAN appliance.

SD-WAN takes you from packets to apps, and beyond

The technology behind SD-WAN changes the paradigm from a packet based network routing system to an application based routing system. This enables organizations to use consumer grade broadband Internet with improved quality and performance, and importantly, a lower cost per megabyte than previously available with MPLS.

SD-WAN also provides agility and flexibility, while maintaining centralized, pre-defined business policies controlling how applications get routed. The resulting visibility and control it provides allows you to identify applications running across the WAN and set policies on their prioritization and use.

SD-WAN also uses dynamic WAN selection to route those apps over the best performing pathways. In addition, SD-WAN lets you use multiple available links in an “active/active” configuration to provide load balancing and failover, with little-to-no perceived interruption. Traffic between sites flows over dynamic, fully encrypted tunnels and can be segmented, providing for a high level of security.

All “SD” driven technologies are not created equal

While it may have previously seemed confusing, as noted above, SD-WAN removes the complexity from the end user, providing an easy to use set of tools and analytics for network management.

Of course, while this may make it sound easy, leading some organizations to decide to implement SD-WAN on their own, there are benefits to leveraging an experienced service provider to help you get the most out of your implementation. Especially if you need to integrate SD-WAN into an existing private or hybrid network. To do that, you’ll need a strong knowledge of your network and how associated services (voice, video, WiFi, etc.) are configured, and how they collectively may impact your security model. These are the sorts of things a knowledgeable provider can help you with, among others.

Now that we’ve taken a bit of the mystery out of the differences between SD-WAN and SDN, you’ll be more prepared than ever to begin moving your organization towards digital transformation empowered by SD-WAN.