The End of SD-WAN’s Party In China


As I was listening to Network Break Episode 257 from my friends at Packet Pushers, I heard Greg and Drew talking about a new development in China that could be the end of SD-WAN’s big influence there.

China has a new policy in place, according to Axios, that enforces a stricter cybersecurity stance for companies. Companies doing business in China or with offices in China must now allow Chinese officials to get into their networks to check for security issues as well as verifying the supply chain for network security.

In essence, this is saying that Chinese officials can have access to your networks at any time to check for security threats. But the subtext is a little less clear. Do they get to control the CPE as well? What about security constructs like VPNs? This article seems to indicate that as of January 1, 2020, there will be no intra-company VPNs authorized by any companies in China, whether Chinese or foreign businesses in China.

Tunnel Collapse

I talked with a company doing some SD-WAN rollouts globally in China all the way back in 2018. One of the things that was brought up in that interview was that China was an unknown for American companies because of the likelihood of changing that model in the future. MPLS is the current go-to connectivity for branch offices. However, because you can put an SD-WAN head-end unit there and build an encrypted tunnel back to your overseas HQ it wasn’t a huge deal.

SD-WAN is a wonderful way to ensure your branches are secure by default. Since CPE devices “phone home” and automatically build encrypted tunnels back to a central location, such as an HQ, you can be sure that as soon as the device powers on and establishes global connectivity that all traffic will be secure over your VPN until you change that policy.

Now, what happens with China’s new policy? All traffic must transit outside of a VPN. Things like web traffic aren’t as bad but what about email? Or traffic destined for places like AWS or Azure? It was an unmentioned fact that using SD-WAN VPNs to transit through the content filters in place in China was a way around issues that might arise from accessing resources inside of a very well secured country-wide network.

With the policy change and enforcement guidelines set forth to be enacted in 2020, this could be a very big deal for companies hoping to use SD-WAN in China. First and foremost, you can’t use your intra-company VPN functions any longer. That effectively means that your branch office can’t connect to the HQ or the rest of your corporate network. Given some of the questions around intellectual property issues in China that might not be a bad thing. However, it is going to cause issues for your users trying to access the mail and other support services. Especially if they are hosted somewhere that is going to create additional scrutiny.

The other potential issue is whether or not Chinese officials are even going to allow you to use CPE of your own choosing in the future. If the mandate is that officials should have access to your network for security concerns, who is to say they can’t just dictate what CPE you should use in order to facilitate that access. Larger companies can probably negotiate for come kind of on-site server that does network scanning. But smaller branches are likely going to need to have an all-in-one device at the head end doing all the work. The additional benefit for the Chinese is that control of the head end CPE ensures that you can’t build a site-to-site VPN anywhere.

Peering Into The Future

Greg and Drew pontificate a bit on the future on what this means for organizations from foreign countries doing business in China in the future. I tend to agree with them on a few points. I think you’re going to see a push for Chinese offices of major companies treating them like zero-trust endpoints. All communications will be trading minimal information. Networks won’t be directly connected, either by VPN substitute or otherwise.

Looking further down the road makes the plans even more murky. Is there a way that you can certify yourself to have a standard for cybersecurity? We have something similar with regulations here in the US were we can submit compliance reports for various agencies and submit to audits or have audits performed by third parties. But if the government won’t take that as an answer how do you even go about providing the level of detail they want? If the answer is “you can’t”, then the larger discussion becomes whether or not you can comply with their regulations and reduce your business exposure while still making money in this market. And that’s a conversation no technology can solve.


Tom’s Take

SD-WAN gives us a wonderful set of features included in the package. Things like application inspection are wonderful to look at on a dashboard but I’ve always been a bigger fan of the automatic VPN service. I like knowing that as soon as I turn up my devices they become secure endpoints for all my traffic. Alas, all the technology in the world can be defeated by business or government regulation. If the rules say you can’t have a feature, you either have to play by the rules or quit playing the game. It’s up to businesses to decide how they’ll react going forward. But SD-WAN’s greatest feature may now have to be an unchecked box on that dashboard.

2 thoughts on “The End of SD-WAN’s Party In China

  1. There are other concerns in that the Chinese have participated in rampant IP theft. Whose to say they won’t abuse these mandated back doors?

  2. This is going to be huge if it plays out as described. Many MSP’s are gearing up for China and if it turns out all traffic must transit out of the country outside encapsulation it will kill SD-WAN deployments.

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