The change in operating environments arising out of the imperatives of the Covid pandemic is going to drive growth in software-defined wide area network (SD-WAN). This technology allows enterprises to use a combination of connectivity methods to securely connect users to applications. SD-WAN is still an emerging sector, which clocked about $2 billion in revenues in 2019. Pre-Covid SD-WAN projections indicated a CAGR of 60% to reach a size of $30 billion by 2030. Data from the last three months shows that Internet traffic increased by 25%-30% and DDoS attacks by 20%. This spike in growth is likely to sustain and will act as a key driver for further acceleration of adoption of SD-WAN.

SD-WAN as a solution emerged as a response to a set of fundamental changes in the marketplace. As organisations started moving towards a hybrid cloud infrastructure, especially with the adoption of SaaS applications, the need for a WAN infrastructure that ensured better user experience and application performance by intelligent routing became essential. Second, the movement away from proprietary hardware boxes to white boxes (universal customer premise equipment or uCPE) by separation of the control and data plane resulted in significant cost reduction in comparison to conventional routers. Finally, it was the need for enhanced security infrastructure at the branches and demand for ensuring common policy deployment across the whole enterprise to prevent the “weak Link” hack.

It is expected that 80% of the new applications that will be deployed between now and 2030 will be on the cloud and this will result in the need for a significant increase in bandwidth at branches of organisations. In addition, the rise of Internet of Things (IoT) devices is only going to increase the traffic and place more demand on Internet bandwidth. These trends call for a significant optimisation of the network to effectively support business user needs. SD-WAN use-cases will continue to evolve as the technology matures. Some of the use-cases that will get traction include optimising application performance across multi-clouds, SD-WAN over 5G, virtual networking functions (VNFs, which handle specific network functions and run in virtual machines on network infrastructure) moving to uCPE, and self-healing networks.

From technology to business outcome

Intent-based networking is the marriage of software-defined networks with intelligence. Intent-based networks involves prioritising and optimising business application traffic based on the need. The pervasive acceleration of digital transformation enabled by the pandemic has resulted in the need to programmatically make system-wide changes across operational service-level agreements (SLAs), delivery of business function requirements, service-chaining network functions, and enhanced user experience. While intent-based networking tends to look at the end-to-end network from LAN to data centre to WAN, the crucial piece continues to be the WAN. While SD-WAN sets the agenda for a software-defined world, the next frontier of intent-based networking seems to be closer than ever. This technology will ensure that the desired outcome of the intent is delivered by the network.

While the SD-WAN focusses on device configuration and technology changes, intent-based networking takes a step ahead to ensure that the network infrastructure is flexible to meet the business intents. A self-healing software-defined WAN is essential to realise the promise of intent-based networking. An intent-based network will take into consideration all possible paths across classes of services to ensure that the business performance outcome is realised. And when things go wrong, the AI algorithms kick in to fix the problems of the paths that are not performing. Over the next few years, network transformation will be towards consuming transport as an aggregation of links with no delineation of separate link characteristics.

The use-cases on intent-based networks span a variety of industries and a range of applications:

* Virtual reality-led collaboration of experts

* Ensuring network reacts to the needs of a remote surgery

* High fidelity tele-health consultation

* Applications accessing sensor data in IoT deployments

* Managing autonomous vehicles

Enterprises will benefit by intent-based infrastructure as it will reduce connectivity delivery times as well as outages. The network will ensure business agility, improve operational efficiency, better security compliance, and reduce risks.

While full intent-based networking is still a few years away, 2020 could be an inflection point. With the 5G roll-out becoming mainstream and proliferation of IoT equipment, the growth possibilities for a software-defined network is enormous. The innovation in the space is gaining significant ground, especially around areas of closed loop automation, machine reasoning, and AI algorithms that will ensure there is a fully automated network available for the enterprise of the future.

Views are personal. The author is chief marketing and strategy officer, Microland.

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