Sorting Through SD-WAN


SD-WAN has finally arrived. We’re not longer talking about it in terms of whether or not it is a thing that’s going to happen, but a thing that will happen provided the budgets are right. But while the concept of SD-WAN is certain, one must start to wonder about what’s going to happen to the providers of SD-WAN services.

Any Which Way You Can

I’ve written a lot about SDN and SD-WAN. SD-WAN is the best example of how SDN should be marketed to people. Instead of talking about features like APIs, orchestration, and programmability, you need to focus on the right hook. Do you see a food processor by talking about how many attachments it has? Or do you sell a Swiss Army knife by talking about all the crazy screwdrivers it holds? Or do you simply boil it down to “This thing makes your life easier”?

The most successful companies have made the “easier” pitch the way forward. Throwing a kitchen sink at people doesn’t make them buy a whole kitchen. But showing them how easy and automated you can make installation and management will sell boxes by the truckload. You have to appeal the opposite nature that SD-WAN was created to solve. WANs are hard, SD-WANs make them easy.

But that only works if your SD-WAN solution is easy in the first place. The biggest, most obvious target is Cisco IWAN. I will be the first to argue that the reason that Cisco hasn’t captured the SD-WAN market is because IWAN isn’t SD-WAN. It’s a series of existing technologies that were brought together to try and make and SD-WAN competitor. IWAN has all the technical credibility of a laboratory full of parts of amazing machines. What it lacks is any kind of ability to tie all that together easily.

IWAN is a moving target. Which platform should I use? Do I need this software to make it run correctly? How do I do zero-touch deployments? Or traffic control? How do I plug a 4G/LTE modem into the router? The answers to each of these questions involves typing commands or buying additional software features. That’s not the way to attack the complexity of WANs. In fact, it feeds into that complexity even more.

Cisco needs to look at a true SD-WAN technology. That likely means acquisition. Sure, it’s going to be a huge pain to integrate an acquisition with other components like APIC-EM, but given the lead that other competitors have right now, it’s time for Cisco to come up with a solution that knocks the socks off their longtime customers. Or face the very real possibility of not having longtime customers any longer.

Every Which Way But Loose

The first-generation providers of SD-WAN bounced onto the scene to pick up the pieces from IWAN. Names like Viptela, VeloCloud, CloudGenix, Versa Networks, and more. But, aside from all managing to build roughly the same platform with very similar features, they’ve hit a might big wall. They need to start making money in order for these gambles to pay off. Some have customers. Others are managing the migration into other services, like catering their offerings toward service providers. Still others are ripe acquisition targets for companies that lack an SD-WAN strategy, like HPE or Dell. I expect to see some fallout from the first generation providers consolidating this year.

The second generation providers, like Riverbed and Silver Peak, all have something in common. They are building on a business they’ve already proven. It’s no coincidence that both Riverbed and Silver Peak are the most well-known names in WAN optimization. How well known? Even major Cisco partners will argue that they sell these two “best of breed” offerings over Cisco’s own WAAS solution. Riverbed and Silver Peak have a definite advantage because they have a lot of existing customers that rely on WAN optimization. That market alone is going to net them a significant number of customers over the next few years. They can easily sell SD-WAN as the perfect addition to make WAN optimization even easier.

The third category of SD-WAN providers is the late comers. I still can’t believe it, but I’ve been reading about providers that aren’t traditional companies trying to get into the space. Talk about being the ninth horse in an eight horse race. Honestly, at this point you’re better off plowing your investment money into something else, like Internet of Things or Virtual Reality. There’s precious little room among the existing first generation providers and the second generation stalwarts. At best, all you can hope for is a quick exit. At worst, your “novel” technology will be snapped up for pennies after you’re bankrupt and liquidating everything but the standing desks.

Tom’s Take

Why am I excited about the arrival of SD-WAN? Because now I can finally stop talking about it! In all seriousness, when the boardroom starts talking about things that means it’s past the point of being a hobby project and now has become a real debate. SD-WAN is going to change one of the most irritating aspects of networking technology for us. I can remember trying to study for my CCNP and cramming all the DSL and T1 knowledge a person could fit into a brain in my head. Now, it’s all point-and-click and done. IPSec VPNs, traffic analytics, and application identification are so easy it’s scary. That’s the power of SD-WAN to me. Easy to use and easy to extend. I think that the landscape of providers of SD-WAN technologies is going to look vastly different by the end of 2017. But SD-WAN is going to be here for the long haul.

This WAN Is Your WAN, This WAN Is My WAN

Straw Bales on Hill Landscape, Tuscany, Italy

Straw Bales on Hill Landscape, Tuscany, Italy

Ideas coalesce all the time in every vertical. You don’t really notice it until you wake up one day and suddenly everything around you looks identical. Wireless becoming the new access layer. Flash storage taking hold of the high end performance crown. And in networking we have the dominance of all things software defined. One recent development has coming along much faster than anyone could have predicted: Software Defined Wide Area Networking (SD-WAN).

Automatic For The People

SD-WAN is a force in modern networking because people want simplicity. While Ivan does a great job of decoupling marketing from reality, people still believe that SD-WAN is the silver bullet that will fix all of their WAN woes. Even during the original discussions of SD-WAN technology at conferences like ONUG, the overriding idea wasn’t around tying sites together or driving down costs to the point of feasibility. It was all about making life easier.

How does SD-WAN manage to accomplish this? It’s all black box networking. Just like the fuel injector in your car. There’s no crying about interoperability or standards-based protocols. You just plug things in and it all works, even if you can’t exactly plug one vendor solution into a competitor. Lock in wins again.

The ideas behind SD-WAN aren’t exactly new. Cisco talked about SD-WAN quite a bit at Networking Field Day 10. Here’s Jeff Reed on it:

The rest of the two hour session details how Cisco is using their Intelligent WAN (IWAN) product to drive SD-WAN. The names of the components all sound very familiar to networkers: DMVPN, NBAR, PfR, and so on. That’s because SD-WAN uses a lot of tried-and-true techniques to tie the concept together. There’s nothing earth-shattering about SD-WAN under the hood. In fact, a fair number of people that work at the “pioneering” SD-WAN startups all seem to have their roots in one or more traditional networking companies.

Fables of Reconstruction

Look at the other presenters at Networking Field Day 10. Two of them announced SD-WAN solutions even though they aren’t really known for expertise in SD-WAN. One of them wasn’t even known as a branch office acceleration solution. So why the SD-WAN land rush all of the sudden? What’s behind the need to have a solution?

You probably wouldn’t be surprised to learn that a lot of investors are backing expansion into SD-WAN technologies. It’s a hot property. But why? As above, customers aren’t interested in the technical wizardry that goes into SD-WAN. They aren’t clamoring for it to supplant their current WAN solution and offer a Rosetta Stone of inter-vendor WAN cooperation. What’s behind the push?

It probably goes something like this:

  1. Technologist needs to implement WAN architecture. Is dismayed that things are so difficult.
  2. Technologist starts searching for solutions about WAN. They probably start asking friends about it.
  3. Analyst firm hears that technologists are asking about WAN solutions. Releases a questionnaire asking which technologies you’d like to learn more about.
  4. Responses to questionnaires are loaded into a graph or report that people buy because they don’t know who to talk to.
  5. Companies realize customers want WAN solutions. They break their necks to offer those solutions to keep up with demand.
  6. Investors see companies beginning to offer WAN solutions and think there’s a huge untapped market. They start funding anyone that mentions WAN in a meeting.

By the way, you can replace “WAN” with any technology above and it still works.

Thanks to customers needing a solution for something they can’t configure easily they are going to be inundated with SD-WAN options by the time they turn around. And the biggest concern no long becomes “Who has the easiest solution?” but instead, “Who is still going to be here in six months?”

Collapse Into Now

The reckoning is coming in the SD-WAN market. If a company doesn’t already have an SD-WAN solution in development or if their solution won’t see daylight for another nine months, they are going to exercise the second “B” of innovation and buy it. And they have a lot of prime targets to choose from.

Investors get cagey without an exit strategy. How are they going to win at this game? They either have to get paid with an IPO, with a later round of funding, or by having someone buy out the investment. If an investor thinks they can get their money back (plus a bit of interest) by having this little startup bought by a traditional networking vendor you can better believe they will be advising the startup to sell.

The customers are the real losers in the case of a buyout, or worse a bankruptcy. Those highly proprietary solutions become dead weight if there isn’t any support for them any longer. Black box networking falls apart when the little magical creatures inside the box go away. Which means customers will be skittish of supporting a solution that is likely to go away any time soon.

Who will you support? An established vendor slow to roll out a solution? Or an up-and-coming company with new ideas but at risk of being snapped up by a big bank account?

Tom’s Take

I loved seeing all the SD-WAN discussion at Networking Field Day 10. SD-WAN is no longer magic sauce that aggregates DSL and MPLS circuits with encryption. Nuage Networks showed off deploying Docker apps to remote sites. Riverbed talked about using their WAN optimization experience to deploy SaaS solutions through SD-WAN.

We’ve heard from SD-WAN companies in the past at Networking Field Day. It’s interesting to hear the comparisons between the upstarts and the old geezers. It’s clear there is a ton of money that is being invested in SD-WAN. The trick is to find out your needs and pick the best solution for you. Otherwise you may find yourself losing your SD-WAN religion.