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Shining a Spotlight on SD-WAN Interoperability

As Nemertes Research VP Irwin Lazar wrote on No Jitter earlier this week, software-defined WAN (SD-WAN) technology is "bringing sexy back" to the wide area network. This is not the first time I've heard this sentiment, although certainly no one but Irwin had channeled Justin Timberlake in expressing the technology's allure.

But appealing it is, one of the hottest things out there in enterprise networking. Multi-Protocol Label Switching (MPLS), the legacy enterprise WAN technology of choice, isn't just old, it's dated. MPLS is not up to the task of handling the volume of traffic hitting the WAN as companies increase their reliance on cloud-based applications, including for communications and mobile workforces.

As Irwin mentioned, SD-WAN brings about all sorts of new coolness, not the least of which is lower WAN costs. With SD-WAN devices at the branch, outbound traffic can flow across the best available network services -- including low-cost Internet connections -- on an application-by-application basis. "[So] ... an enterprise could potentially reduce WAN spend (by eliminating or reducing MPLS service use) while also delivering adequate performance for cloud applications like email/calendar, voice, video, and/or file sharing," Irwin wrote.

A Long and Growing List
As the tendency goes with all things trendy, everybody wants in on the SD-WAN action. Just for kicks, after reading Irwin's post I jotted down the names of companies I know that are pitching their SD-WAN stories. I came up with a dozen without much effort.

As I've written previously, for example, Cisco has its SD-WAN "Bill of Rights," Glue Networks its SD-WAN orchestration platform, InfoVista (formerly Ipanema Technologies) its hybrid WAN, and Silver Peak its WAN overlay network. I've also spoken to companies such as Cato Networks, Citrix, Earthlink, and Viptela about SD-WAN, though haven't yet had time to share their angles on No Jitter. And let's not forget the companies Irwin mentioned in his post: In addition to Cisco, we have CloudGenix, Mushroom Networks, Talari, and VeloCloud.

A Sticking Point
Of late, SD-WAN interoperability in particular has been in the spotlight, put there by the SD-WAN working group, a division of Open Networking User Group (ONUG) -- and with good reason. Applying software-defined networking principles to the WAN is one of the key promises of SD-WAN, as Steve Woo, VeloCloud co-founder, wrote in a recent ONUG blog post.

At ONUG Fall 2015, taking place this week in New York, the SD-WAN group and various participants staged interoperability demos. Silver Peak, for example, pieced together a demo for its Unity EdgeConnect SD-WAN appliance showing interoperability among infrastructure, security, and cloud solutions from Amazon Web Services, Infoblox, Nutanix, Pluribus, and zScaler. And Glue Networks is showing proof-of-concept support for multivendor SD-WAN orchestration.

Interoperability is that perennial networking bugaboo -- oh so necessary, but at times, oh so painful to achieve. This time around, the SD-WAN working group's focus is on demonstrating interoperability in scenarios involving network connectivity, security, application services, and cloud service providers. Demos will show, for example, how enterprises can do away with hardware appliances for functions like load balancing and firewall by inserting those network services in the traffic path. Other demos will show connectivity of remote sites to cloud providers without using traditional routers, plus automation and orchestration of the SD-WAN configuration, as described in a ONUG blog post on the demos.

In that post, Nick Lippis, ONUG co-chairman and co-founder, wrote: "This level of interoperability is important as it allows IT business executives to swap out vendors that are not working out or have shifted their focus. It puts control of purchasing into the hands of IT business leaders and allows companies to be more agile and responsible to the market."

What it doesn't do, however, is allow an enterprise to create a single multivendor SD-WAN fabric, the ONUG post continued. That's because, in these early days of SD-WAN, vendors are doing things their own ways. For example, vendor A may use encapsulation technique X in creating its overlay, while vendor B may use protocol Y. Before an enterprise can build an SD-WAN out of more than one vendor's appliances, all the players are going to have to be using the same protocols, in the same ways.

Heavy sighs all around. We all know the monumental challenges that standardizing on protocols entails.

But as enticing as SD-WAN is already, its appeal will only grow when enterprises can really do what they want with it. ONUG's mantra is openness, of course, but who could argue with its point that "no one vendor can provide the complete solution" and that "the evolution to SD-WAN ecosystems and not just products is a significant step for the industry."

We'll be keeping tabs on SD-WAN interoperability initiatives and other developments, and if your organization is headed deeper into cloud communications or mobility, you should be on the lookout, too. Watch No Jitter for ongoing SD-WAN coverage, and catch our SD-WAN session at Enterprise Connect 2016, taking place March 7 to 10 in Orlando, Fla. Register now using the code NJPOST and receive $200 off the current conference price.

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