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SD-WAN and the pandemic

Zabrina Doerck, director of product marketing, global enterprise at Infovista, takes a look at the lessons learnt during the pandemic that will help businesses better cope with lasting uncertainties.

Many organisations are now in a ‘lessons learnt’ phase as the Covid-19 pandemic enters a potential ‘second wave’ with winter fast approaching.  

All around the world, businesses are rapidly adapting critical technology platforms for a prolonged shift to remote working.

This time though, they will keep in mind that business continuity planning geared towards a high impact physical event, such as a data centre outage or loss of WAN connectivity, was not well matched for a multi-month, international crisis that dramatically reorientated people and processes.

Instead, it became imperative that businesses find a solution for controlling performance at the network edge, beyond its traditional physical boundaries. Those who adapted most successfully looked to cloud solutions, for which SD-WAN was a critical enabler.

A sudden shift to WFH

As staff transitioned, suddenly, to home working,  many organisations experienced significant business interruptions. One of the biggest issues was limited remote access to critical line of business applications.

Some enterprises attempted to resolve the issue by adding VPN capacity, but then ran into the issue that the core networks were never designed for such a high volume of VPN traffic – leading to application performance degradation and business disruption.

Call centre from home

One scenario was made worse by additional requirements such as the routing of voice over IP calls across the network and regulatory requirements to record calls.

This was the case for a major financial services provider that needed to close its call centres and send staff home to work remotely. The company increased its VPN capacity by enabling additional licenses in its VPN appliances which allowed remote staff to login, securely, via the internet.

However, its voice call routing needed to pass through its data centre to ensure call recording. The result was a highly congested network leading to poor performance for its critical application.

In this scenario, the company used its existing SD-WAN platform to create new policies to enforce and manage prioritisation of its voice and line of business applications over everything else.

This meant that other types of corporate traffic across its WAN and through its data centre was not blocked but simply slowed down to favour the critical business apps. Ultimately, SD-WAN allowed the company to maintain a high-level of customer service and security for its call centre teams.

Rural issues

With staff working from home, companies had to shift staff from high-capacity corporate networks to the unpredictable residential broadband of the home office.

For one professional service provider, this resulted in staff based in rural areas with poor broadband connectivity not being able to effectively carry out their jobs.

Its first port of call was to contact ISPs to see if it could upgrade broadband connectivity. In some cases, this was a possibility, but the lead times were potentially months away – and in some cases, simply not viable. 

For some workers switching to remote work with low bandwidth connections, the home environment also brought up challenges in terms of sharing one connection with the rest of the family streaming media, and engaging in their own remote working and learning – often with bandwidth consumptive applications, such as video.

The solution for this professional services provider was a mass order of 4G based hotspot devices using a ‘multi-network’ SIM that allowed each home worker to instantly connect to the cellular network provider with the best coverage.

Each user also received via remote provisioning a duo of SD-WAN software and VPN client installed on each company issued laptop. The software automatically selects which connection type offers the best performance and creates a secure tunnel through to the company’s application stack.

This solution was eventually deployed to several hundred staff, and not only provided a consistent network access method but managed to stop the growing deluge of IT helpdesk calls from staff with connection and application performance issues.

Cloud transition

Yet perhaps the biggest lesson learned was around the value of cloud-based applications. For a provider of logistics and transport services, the pandemic forced not only a shift to working from home, but also the need to ramp up capacity.

The company had already been on a digital transformation path to move more of its applications into virtualised and private cloud. With critical applications spread across private cloud, SaaS, hosted and on-premise environments, the company already used a cloud-based SD-WAN service to manage its application traffic flows.

With the SD-WAN solution in place, they were able to quickly adapt to the increased volume in cloud and SaaS application usage, as well as streamline the onboarding of new (remote) staff.

In this case, SD-WAN enabled the business to optimise resources across all network elements, functionally extending the network edge.  

Although the IT team were working remotely, they were still able to gauge, in real time, the application performance for each site and remote user across every type of application source – from the data centre all the way through to cloud-based applications.

Although the network now comprised elements outside corporate IT’s traditional sphere of control, the remote IT team were able to set up dynamic rules to ensure that the bandwidth pool was spread evenly to meet the demand and ensure that critical systems always met required performance thresholds.

The new world order

As we look to the future, the unpredictable nature of the ongoing health crisis will continue to impact strategic business planning and IT spending priorities.

Most businesses now recognise that remote work is not necessarily a temporary anomaly, but instead a long-term position for at least part of the workforce.

These circumstances will likely accelerate adoption of multi-cloud infrastructure while driving organisations to find new solutions for ensuring performance over cost-effective transport (e.g. Internet, mobile) and seamless access to cloud and SaaS based technologies. 

With this shift, an underlying networking layer that supports high application performance must deliver equally high levels of flexibility and agility.

A final takeaway is that the ability to adapt, must sit now alongside resiliency and high availability as key attributes, irrespective of the pandemic.

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