Businesses took to software-defined wide area network (SD-WAN) fast, with around 60% adopting the technology by mid-2020 and most others doing so since, to the point where it's becoming "the de facto WAN technology" in the business telecommunications market today.
The early pitch around cost savings when using SD-WAN was an effective one, but it also came with a big problem: customers expected just one aspect of the technology to drive all of their return-on-investment and became frustrated when it didn't.
Many are now waking up to the reality that their focus on SD-WAN technology has been overly narrow (such as it was a cost-effective alternative for MPLS traditional technologies), that their business cases for SD-WAN don't cover the full range of the technology's true potential and benefits, and that these factors have combined to severely undercut their ability to generate an appropriate payback.
SD-WAN's true potential for business improvement and extended ROI covers four key areas: visibility, security posture, traffic management and control, and reporting.
An SD-WAN's visibility and reporting capabilities are considerably more detailed than a traditional WAN.
With SD-WAN, it is possible to generate and access a whole range of detailed reports into what a network is doing and why, insights that can then be actioned to support a range of improvements.
Traffic management and control is similarly advanced. Using SD-WAN means relying less on a service provider or third party to implement policies that enable better control over aspects of the end-user experience, especially when they are trying to connect to your servers or cloud accounts.
There are also newer, perhaps unforeseen, aspects to SD-WAN technology platforms that weren't baked into the product from day one but can now be used to generate even higher returns. Its security capabilities are a case in point.
SD-WAN was always capable of offering businesses real value, but the opportunity is many times bigger than many adopters understand it to be.
If you're in a position where SD-WAN perhaps hasn't fulfilled your cost-saving expectations, or you're always in the market to make more use (and savings) from existing investments, then now is a good time to revisit your SD-WAN and what it can do for you.
Beneath the surface
In some ways, SD-WAN is following the same trajectory as other technologies used in SME and enterprise environments.
It's fairly common for businesses to barely scratch the surface of the list of features that a software tool or platform provides. Yet, their limited use of the technology still creates enough value to meet the original business case. The business then has an opportunity to expand its use over time, layering on additional use cases to squeeze more value out of the original investment.
SD-WAN is similar, except that the technology itself has evolved into something more multifaceted only after an initial wave of businesses signed up.
As these features weren't necessarily in the product from day one but have been progressively added, there is a potential lack of awareness of the full extent of what SD-WAN is now capable of.
Businesses, for example, often aren't fully aware of the security-related enhancements made to SD-WAN in recent years. Because SD-WAN directly connects customers to the public internet, it made sense to bolster the security posture and capabilities of the appliance.
The changes made are such that there is little difference between a traditional stock-standard firewall security product and what SD-WAN can do today. As they both can do an excellent job, SD-WAN opens intriguing possibilities for businesses wanting to revamp their edge or first line of security defences.
So much more than an 'MPLS killer'
What is certain is that the ROI on SD-WAN is so much more than when it burst onto the scene and into the business consciousness in 2015 as an 'MPLS killer'.
While SD-WAN can be more cost-effective to run than an MPLS - customers do report savings on their bandwidth costs, fulfilling the initial sales pitch - this is just the tip of the iceberg on ROI.
When calculating ROI, comparing your connectivity costs when you ran an MPLS network to what they are now running a variety of links with an SD-WAN overlay is not an 'apples' comparison.
SD-WAN can't just be about connectivity: it can actually augment or replace several existing systems and tools. It does more than a standalone MPLS ever did, which needs to be factored into the ROI calculations. Indeed, under the hood, MPLS is a different technology to SD-WAN in many ways.
The more use cases brought to bear, the more cost-effective and value accretive SD-WAN becomes.
The extent to which these additional capabilities are used will very much depend on individual requirements. This means, for example, understanding what your security posture looks like today and where you want it to be tomorrow. It means examining existing network reporting that you have access to today, and thinking about what additional information or intelligence could really aid your operations into the future.