From less than half a billion dollars in 2013 to an expected $14 billion by 2021, the significant growth in the global market for software-defined networking (SDN) reflects how important this evolutionary step in infrastructure management will become in the months to come, writes Ralph Berndt, Director of Sales at Syrex.

As the name suggests, SDN enables a network to be intelligently (and centrally) programmed or controlled using software. No more engineers running around with screwdrivers trying to manually fix connections. No more sending technicians to branch offices to investigate network problems. With SDN, this becomes automated to greatly reduce expenses and allow IT staff to fulfill more high-level networking duties.

In South Africa, and the rest of Africa, pricing has been the main driver for companies looking at SDN solutions given how prohibitively expensive last mile connectivity has been. SDN provides companies with the means to manage their entire network infrastructure behind a single pane of glass instead of using a managed network partner or ISP.

Additionally, with the evolution of SD WAN, clients are now able to deploy an appliance at each branch or office to manage the connectivity in a more controlled and effective manner.

Adapting to change

SDN/SD WAN provide several benefits – the most significant being the ability to create policy-driven network supervision and implement network automation. Using this technology, companies can control data traffic to optimise things such as VoIP, video and audio transmissions, and other quality of service offerings.

However, if the business does not have the in-house skills to capitalise on SDN/SD WAN or are closely aligned to managed network providers, SDN/SD WAN can create additional risk without any real rewards. Larger managed service providers can bring premium internet service costs down and thereby provide cost-effective solutions. So, those companies moving to SDN/SD WAN might find that the self-management and the skills required might leave them exposed.

SDN/SD WAN is best delivered by those providers that have a true understanding of the benefits and best practice methodologies when shifting companies to this new technology. Ultimately, the biggest risk is how to manage security effectively if branches break out locally and still be interconnected to their larger organisation.

While solutions such as next-generation firewalling can alleviate these concerns, not all SDN/SD WAN technologies cater for them. It is therefore advisable to work with a trusted partner who is willing to gain a comprehensive understanding of the business requirements and developing an SDN/SD WAN offering to best fit those needs.

Growth opportunities

The potential for SD WAN in South Africa over the coming months cannot be ignored. However, this does not mean connectivity concerns are automatically laid to rest. Broadband services in the country are well known for not delivering an enterprise quality service. The carriers that provide these [broadband] offerings are not able to provide SLAs and professional support. And that is not even thinking about addressing the small matter of network contention.

With the right SD WAN solution these risks can be overcome with multiple broadband services being run actively to reduce the risk. The right SD WAN solutions also provide error correction and are able to “fix” the issues experienced on basic broadband.

This will therefore result in a natural limitation, if the correct SD WAN solution is not utilised, given how organisations will be looking for service guarantees when implementing SD WAN.

Companies therefore need to ensure that they are collaborating with a partner that understands not just the benefits of SD WAN but also the intrinsic risks. This partner must be qualified when advising on cloud technology and security as these are the drivers for businesses when moving their business applications into the cloud.

SD WAN on its own is not the silver bullet many make it out to be. Instead it provides an important delivery mechanism to overhaul the corporate network and pair that with a software-first vision for the cloud-centric environment. And for this to work, the business must work with an SD WAN partner that can help it realise this vision.

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