Industry Voices—Chua: Evolution of the SD-WAN battle: What's next?

Hardly a week goes by before software-defined wide are networking (SD-WAN) pops up again in a news article. Everyone's looking into how big the market will grow, and tracking hot verticals and cool new features. At the same time, with the large number of vendors--between 50 and 80 depending on how picky your SD-WAN definition is--enterprises can easily be overwhelmed in their decision on which SD-WAN solution to go with.

In this highly competitive market, SD-WAN vendors are fighting to stay relevant by evolving their products and trying to create appropriate positioning in the minds of their target prospects. The battle is now evolving across multiple fronts, some of which we'll examine in this article.

Exploiting incumbency

It's immediately obvious which SD-WAN vendors can leverage their existing networking platform or computing platform installed-base to further their market growth. To that extent, Cisco with Viptela, and VMware with VeloCloud and NSX are extending their reach aggressively into enterprises. VMware, by tying VeloCloud into the NSX umbrella, is creating an end-to-end fabric in the long run. They are also seeking to leverage mobile and 5G to extend their strength in network virtualization across both the enterprise edge and the service provider edge.

Cisco's strength can be seen in just the increasing number of service providers who started with another SD-WAN solution such as Versa, Silver Peak, or Nuage Networks but have now added Cisco to their offering as an alternative. When asked, the answer came back simply, "It's Cisco, and we're expecting enterprises to ask for it." We'll see how Cisco's Viptela, Meraki, and ACI approaches tie together (or not) in the end, but clearly the installed base of enterprise WAN routers (ISR/ASR) provides strong leverage in the SD-WAN battle.

Enterprise versus service provider

Another aspect of this SD-WAN competition involves the focus on service provider versus enterprise as the solution buyer. At the end of the day, SD-WAN is consumed by the enterprise, but there are multiple paths to market. Some vendors, like Nuage Networks from Nokia (no surprise given Nokia's service provider strength), are focused on ensuring their platforms work well for service providers; making their platforms easier to white-label; ensuring strong multi-tenancy support (from the admin portal to their gateways, if used in their architectures); and providing easier ways to connect existing (multi-protocol label switching (MPLS) networks with new SD-WAN networks.

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Unlike single-tenant solutions, which have to be deployed each time for a separate enterprise customer, these platforms provide just enough of an edge for a service provider — carrier or third-party managed service provider — to manage multiple clients from a single platform. The reduced complexity and added functionality make these SD-WAN solutions more compelling than the next.

Private core, faster Internet on-ramps as new differentiator

Another axis of differentiation that's popping up is the use of private core networks instead of routing over the public Internet. These private networks are supposed to provide improved end-to-end quality of service (QoS.) Some SD-WAN vendors like Aryaka and Cato Networks bake that capability into their offerings, while others are starting to offer it by partnering and integrating with a MODE or Teridion-type solution, which provides private core networks that promise to make direct internet links just as reliable as MPLS end-to-end, but at a fraction of the cost.

Another flavor of this is the improved on-ramps that provide direct access to public cloud infrastructure — Amazon Web Services (AWS), Microsoft Azure, Google — with direct access paths in as few hops as possible. Increasingly, these on-ramps are expanding to include common software-as-a-serice (SaaS) services like Box, DropBox, Office365, SalesForce, and more. These SD-WAN providers eschew the public Internet in favor of a more controlled, higher-QoS private network.

The evolution of a parallel SD-WAN-driven parallel private business internet versus the public internet will be an interesting one to watch.

Application intelligence fight

The WAN optimization vendors like Silver Peak, Citrix, and Riverbed have leveraged their application smarts as a differentiating factor. Their contention is that the improved application detection on their part can improve the accuracy for any routing or security decisions and can enhance quality of service, and therefore productivity, for remote users. These SD-WAN solutions will usually provide application-specific optimizations and are counting on superior enterprise end-user experience as their unique play. Some of them will bring in the aforementioned accelerated access to public cloud and SaaS as an adjunct to the application intelligence capability as well.

The branch extension battle

On a different front, wireless local are network (WLAN) vendors like Aruba — and of course, Cisco's Meraki — will look to couch the SD-WAN battle in terms favorable to them. They will push SD-WAN as essentially a branch extension play. It is true that in many smaller remote offices, particularly in retail locations, WLAN is the primary network access mechanism and many WLAN platforms already have easy-to-use and manage cloud-controlled architectures in place. By adding more capabilities in terms of multi-link support or improving their security capabilities, these WLAN-centric platforms can turn into viable SD-WAN endpoints.

The security angle

Finally, one of the axes of differentiation that AvidThink views as significant is the fight between the security-focused SD-WAN solutions, especially the ones that come from NGFW vendors like Fortinet, Barracuda, and the rest. The advantage for the security vendors is that survey after survey shows security as one of the top, if not the top, SD-WAN business requirements. The security vendors already have strong brand recognition and significant enterprise footprint. It's a matter of making their cloud management more sophisticated and bolstering their traffic management and multi-link handling to make them competitive in the SD-WAN space.

SD-WAN – the multifront battle

AvidThink sees the SD-WAN competition as a multifaceted battle between a large number of vendors. In this large and growing market, there's plenty of room for everyone, but in the midterm we expect the market to subsegment into submarkets with slightly different business needs. The SD-WAN leaders in each of these subsegments might be different and will be determined by how well the SD-WAN solution fits the needs for each subsegment.

It's not clear whether large players with significant corporate heft like Cisco, VMware, or Nuage/Nokia — or Huawei, if and when the US ban is lifted — can dominate across all subsegments. AvidThink's current view is that we'll have different SD-WAN leaders in each subsegment, but only time will tell.

Roy Chua is founder and principal at AvidThink, an independent research and advisory service formed in 2018 out of SDxCentral's research group. Prior to co-founding SDxCentral and running its research and product teams, Chua was a management consultant working with both Fortune 500 and startup technology companies on go-to-market and product consulting. As an early proponent of the software-defined infrastructure movement, Chua is a frequent speaker at technology events in the telco and cloud space and a regular contributor to major leading online publications. A graduate of UC Berkeley's electrical engineering and computer science program and MIT's Sloan School of Business, Chua has 20+ years of experience in telco and enterprise cloud computing, networking and security, including founding several Silicon Valley startups. He can be reached at [email protected]; follow him at @avidthink and @wireroy

Industry Voices are opinion columns written by outside contributors—often industry experts or analysts—who are invited to the conversation by FierceTelecom staff. They do not represent the opinions of FierceTelecom.