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SDNs come to the branch office, with risks

SDNs come to the branch office, with risks

Looking to save on networking costs, some CIOs are extending SDN capabilities to the WANs that connect remote offices. The challenge is that the fledgling SD-WAN market is unpredictable and driven largely by startups.

Companies have been implementing software-defined networking (SDN) in an effort to make their networks more responsive to cloud services that require flexibility to accommodate scaling traffic loads. Now CIOs hoping to shave dollars off of their costly networking bills are looking to extend SDN capabilities to their wide area networks (WANs).

WANs are telecommunications or computer networks that allow to relay data across remote offices. SDNs allow network administrators to use software to program tasks typically conducted by routers and switches and create policies to route services wherever they are needed regardless of the devices a server or other network device is connected to. SD-WANs marry both capabilities, enabling companies to rapidly set up and manage VPNs, WAN optimization, VoIP and network-based firewalls while supporting MPLS, broadband Internet and LTE services.

John Shaffer, CIO of financial services firm Greenhill & Co.

John Shaffer, CIO of financial services firm Greenhill & Co.

A Netflix for the corporate network

SD-WANs also provide companies a platform with which to connect to SaaS, serving as a kind of over-the-top service for enterprises akin to the way Netflix or Skype run on Internet services, says Nav Chander, who tracks networking trends and technologies as an analyst for IDC. "The real benefit is when you can connect to any cloud service provideras well as existing hosted private apps," Chander tells CIO.com. He says SD-WANs are gaining traction among companies in finance, retail and other sectors as a complement or alternative to MPLS, broadband and other connectivity services.

Count John Shaffer, CIO of financial services firm Greenhill & Co., among those excited about SD-WAN's prospects. When Greenhill acquired Cogent Partners last April, Shaffer had only a few weeks to get Cogent's offices and employees connected to the IT network. He implemented SD-WAN services from Viptela for the Cogent offices as a potential alternative to MPLS services from multiple carriers. He says he likes SD-WANs because they're portable, capable of being set up in hours compared to the months it takes to install and test MPLS services.

"It's good for smaller offices that don't need [the full resources] of MPLS and don't have 120 days to get things installed," Shaffer says. "The real beauty of SD-WAN is you just need an Internet connection and you're up and running." Moreover, should he formally switch to Viptela's SD-WAN, he expects to cut his connectivity bill from $700,000 to about $180,000, plus maintenance fees he pays to Viptela to remotely upgrade and patch the boxes on Greenhill's premises. Greenhill is in the process of deploying Viptela appliances across 15 global offices, with the vendor remotely managing the control software.

Can SD-WAN startups survive a shakeout?

Despite the benefits of SD-WAN, Shaffer says that he still worries about the viability of startups such as Viptela in such an immature market: "I'm relying on something they have and what happens if they go away or get acquired and some company buries their product?" Shaffer says. "You may have time to get out, but you've invested the time and it's not what you wanted."

While there is no crystal ball to help Shaffer see whether Cisco Systems or some other player decides to gobble Viptela, Shaffer says he believes the company is well-positioned for growth based on its funding and commercial track record. Viptela in 2014 raised $33.5 million from Sequoia Capital and counts Gap as one of its customers. Last month Verizon began selling a hosted SD-WAN service powered by Viptela.

Ramesh Prabagaran, Viptela's vice president of product management and marketing, says 25 of the Fortune 500 are using Viptela.

Even so, Shaffer says he sees Viptela as primarily a back-up solution to his MPLS connectivity, with plans to reduce his reliance on those circuits over time. "[SD-WAN] technology is still sort of new," Shaffer says. "Before I go fully in and start dumping things I want a bit of a track record."

IDC’s Chander says Shaffer's concerns are valid. The nascent SD-WAN market is unpredictable, with a shakeout of mergers and acquisitions likely as rivals jockey for competitive position. He also says it's unclear whether startups will have the capabilities to scale in order to accommodate customers' preferences to connect to various cloud services. "I don't know whether SDN-WAN startups can provide robust cloud connectivity to SaaS providers," Chander says.

However, there’s little doubt that future of the technology is bright. IDC predicts that the SD-WAN industry (worth $225 million last year) will grow at a more than 90 percent compound annual growth rate for the next five years to become a $6 billion industry by 2020.

Viptela is among the most mature startups selling SD-WAN in a market that includes Cisco Systems, Riverbed Technologies, and Citrix Systems, as well as startups such as Velocloud, Nuage Networks and Cloudgenix, Chander says.

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