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How SD-WAN democratised the network

By , CTO at Saicom
Africa , 15 May 2023
Greg de Chasteauneuf, CTO at Saicom.
Greg de Chasteauneuf, CTO at Saicom.

It’s been seven years in the making, but SD-WAN has irrevocably changed the technology and security landscape globally. While incumbent MPLS VPN providers have not disappeared altogether, they’re certainly on the way out as companies turn to more cost-effective, agile environments that give them the freedom of choice when it comes to their wide area networks (WANs) and the secure services delivered on top of them.

A brief history

This wasn’t always the case.

MPLS arrived at a time when companies were clamouring for an alternative to having to build and maintain their own WANs - a hellishly expensive undertaking. Even so, only large carriers had the capital to put MPLS networks in place. However, it was a step in the right direction.

Suddenly, companies had the ability to share their network infrastructure securely while reducing costs. But the smaller service providers were still excluded from having a seat at the table. Their ‘buy-in’ needed to be a significant capital outlay and a large number of staff. Realistically, only a handful of providers in the world were able to build and maintain an MPLS network.

Numerous service providers found themselves unable to offer connectivity solutions and supplementary services such as voice, hosting, APN, and security services over networks. The MPLS providers effectively established a restricted environment that prevented their rivals from delivering added-value services to their clientele. Consequently, customers were compelled to purchase specific services solely from these established providers, often at inflated prices and with inferior service quality.

Cloud equaliser

The emergence of cloud technology ignited a transformative change in the market, rendering traditional MPLS architectures unsuitable for IaaS and SaaS applications. This development set the stage for SD-WAN and its role in democratising access to the WAN.

The shift towards cloud removed the need for companies to maintain their own data centres, allowing them to rely on Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS) platforms like Microsoft Azure, Google GCP, and Amazon AWS for infrastructure management.

However, IaaS providers weren't the only disruptors. A multitude of SaaS (Software as a Service) providers also emerged, with companies increasingly opting for an array of SaaS providers, such as Salesforce, Xero, Office365, and Google Workspace, over their on-premise systems.

The rise of SD-WAN enabled branch offices to establish secure connections to cloud-based data. As businesses moved more applications to the cloud, they required speedy and reliable connectivity that provided service and security levels equal to or surpassing MPLS.

The decisive factor that would dethrone MPLS was the level of control SD-WAN granted companies. They could now manage their networks as they saw fit, make changes, route their own traffic, enforce their own policies, prioritise their own applications, and more.

This development also allowed smaller providers to offer various services to organisations, including security, connectivity, applications, and network management. SD-WAN dislodged the MPLS providers who had maintained a tight grip on companies for an extended period. With SD-WAN in place, a business could effectively manage a network of three thousand sites with only a few engineers. They could handle everything themselves and were no longer dependent on an MPLS provider.

Building blocks for innovation

Connectivity served as the foundation for this new democratic landscape, with voice services quickly following suit. Subsequently, a variety of solutions emerged to address diverse organisational infrastructure requirements. As SD-WAN became more cost-effective than traditional options, the services built upon it started to offer competitive advantages and generate revenue.

SD-WAN ushered in a thrilling era of innovation. Admittedly, numerous companies still operate on MPLS networks. This could be partly due to eager managers signing decade-long contracts for reduced monthly fees or a mindset of 'if it's not broken, don't fix it.' Some businesses may feel content with their current infrastructure, or they may be too apprehensive about transitioning from a highly complex environment for fear of causing disruptions.

Trustworthy service providers know how to transition from intricate and restrictive MPLS networks, helping organisations unlock the advantages of more agile, affordable, and secure SD-WAN solutions across the continent.

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