Elements of SD-WAN Platforms: Differentiators, Characteristics and the Hidden Secret

May 18, 2020

By Special Guest
Terry Traina, Chief Digital Officer, Masergy,

One word is beginning to dominate the SD-WAN industry vernacular: platform. SD-WAN solutions have become mashups that squeeze more appliances, features, services, cloud applications and AI tools into one offering, making all of them now platforms. While these SD-WAN medleys might be as refreshing as a bouquet of assorted spring flowers to some, the term platform has become so over-used that it’s losing definition. In other words, the bouquet is wilting.

With platforms everywhere, it’s more important than ever to avoid the ones that leave IT systems more fragmented and to invest time finding the springboards to success. But to get there, we first need to define what an SD-WAN platform actually is, the characteristics that differentiate platforms from mere solution sets, and the hidden secret that enables users to easily provision, configure, orchestrate and manage the network in this digital age of constant change.

Defining an SD-WAN Platform: Start with the Core

Quite literally, a platform is a standard foundation or lowest support substructure from which the larger SD-WAN solution is built. The degree to which the underlying SD-WAN architecture is standardized distinguishes platforms from solution sets. When all of an SD-WAN’s ancillary capabilities share one common infrastructure from edge to edge, benefits include:

  • Interoperability, allowing flexibility and agility
  • End-to-end visibility for faster network troubleshooting and optimization
  • A single client dashboard enabling simplified management
  • Unified management with consistent policies and configurations
  • Real-time analytics and on-demand control
  • Consistent cloud application delivery and network performance

The core is what excludes many of today’s market solutions from being SD-WAN platforms. What lies beneath the core will largely dictate the customer experience, and, ultimately, success. Managed SD-WAN providers typically will use their own private network to serve as the SD-WAN platform. In these cases, users need to question whether the network is entirely software defined, and especially inquire whether it was built using a ubiquitous SD-architecture. If the entire foundation is software defined, virtually every network function will be easily programmable and modifiable via software.

A ubiquitous SD-core is the hidden secret. When the provider expands its SD-WAN solution with more appliances, features, services, applications and Artificial Intelligence (AI), it embeds all of those tools into the same SD-network fabric. This is how a platform extends its value – it gives its medley of ancillary capabilities a common ground that is entirely software defined. Unlike solution sets, platforms deploy a vast number of tools into many different client environments – multiple clouds, branch offices, edge networks, mobile devices and data centers – and unite them all under a holistic service and management framework that provides deep visibility and end-to-end, uniform control.

Critical Characteristics: Global, Cloud-Based, AI-Powered

Features and applications embedded into the underlying fabric of the SD-WAN should interoperate as equal partners on the same operating system. Furthermore, the platform should also be global and cloud-based. With a truly global platform, the SD-WAN can make more promises of service consistency into every corner of your enterprise footprint. And with cloud and virtual delivery models, it provides not only the agility and responsiveness you require, but ultimately paves the way for automation.

Much the same way that software-defined network fabrics are the platforms of SD-WAN, AI-based analytics and automation tools are the cornerstones needed to build fully automated networks or the autonomous networks of the future. Which means you want your SD-WAN platform to be leveraging AI-based analytics so it has the power to automate ancillary services and features now. One day, it just might be smart enough to be self-optimizing, self-healing and self-driving.

Let’s look at the way advanced SD-WAN platforms are using AI-based analytics to automate network optimization and lean into the future. First, behavior analytics make sense of the seemingly endless streams of data describing the activities and state of a network. Machine learning turns that mountain of data into comprehensible intelligence, providing a human-understandable picture of what is going on, and makes that data actionable. This new level of understanding can provide:

  • Patterns and performance visibility that was previously unknowable
  • Reports on how well the network is delivering on bandwidth and security needs
  • Suggestions for network optimization and security improvements
  • Predictions for the future around bandwidth usage and outages

These capabilities are available today. Network virtual advisors are made possible through AIOps tools (which stands for AI for IT Operations). Essentially AIOps can act as a virtual network assistant working 24/7. But this is just the beginning of autonomous networking.

Platforms: Breeding Grounds for Intent-Based and Autonomous Networks

When platforms also have automation tools embedded in the SD-network fabric, IT teams have the ability to program them using workflows and playbooks based on their standard network operations. This allows for fully automated network optimization and automated security improvements that will become the intent-based networks and autonomous networking of tomorrow.

Reaching full autonomy is virtually impossible without the purity of the SD-WAN platform’s underlying architecture. The complexity of the management environment affects the use of AIOps. SD-WAN platforms will be unable to provide AIOps tools the information they need to be truly effective when there are more generations of technology, more diverse infrastructures from more vendors and more protocols for integration. The value of AIOps can be made or broken based on the quality of the SD-WAN platform.

The 5 Elements of an SD-WAN Platform

To recap, here are the five essential elements that make up an SD-WAN platform.

  • A homogeneous SD-environment: a single, underlying architecture uniformly software defined
  • Unified dashboard: provides real-time visibility, analytics, end-to-end control
  • Global reach: enables service consistency all across the world
  • Cloud-based and virtual delivery models: ensure digital agility and responsiveness
  • AI-powered analytics: enable automation with potential for full autonomy

Edited by Maurice Nagle

Get stories like this delivered straight to your inbox. [Free eNews Subscription]