Why service providers and vendors are tuning up home-based SD-WAN services

With millions of employees now working from home, service providers are looking for ways to offer more secure, manageable services into those home offices. SD-WAN could emerge as a prime technology that better enables work-from-home (WFH) and work-from-anywhere (WFA) scenarios for enterprises.

In short, home-based SD-WAN is doable, but it may not look like current SD-WAN offerings.

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Before we get into the details, it's worth noting that Versa Networks CEO Kelly Ahuja said "The home is now the branch" in an interview with Futuriom founder and analyst Scott Raynovich in a FierceTelecom story. During several interviews since Raynovich's story ran, I've asked if the home is now truly the branch.

For starters, Versa Networks is preparing to roll out a new solution called Versa Secure Access, which is targeted at WFH users and based on its SD-WAN and security technology, according to Raynovich.

Comcast Business, which uses Versa's technology for its software-defined networking (SDN) ActiveCore platform and SD-WAN, is thinking along the same lines. While Comcast Business' Jeff Lewis, vice president for software-defined networking, didn't specifically mention Versa, he did say customers have been asking about a home-based SD-WAN service.

"I have my team working on it right now," Lewis said. "We believe that we're very strongly positioned with our broadband assets.

 "There's absolutely a need to support individuals at home with very robust transport, very robust voice services, for example, or something that you could package with things we have on the truck right now. And you'll be seeing some things from Comcast that are very straightforward, very simple, but really fits and hits the need of what people need in order to support home-based work. That's an easy one, if you will. "

Lewis said businesses that have multi-site SD-WAN want employees that are now working from home to have a persistent VPN experience. Comcast has spoken to customers about items that it already has on service techs' trucks to enable a "branch-in-the-box" solution for home offices.

"The reason why they want to use SD-WAN is because they want visibility into the traffic that's going across that network," Lewis said. "They want the ability to provide perhaps an LTE backup at home so they have a lot of resilience. They want the user to effectively be in an always on state.

"We believe with our economics, the way we deliver SD-WAN—because we're basically Comcast cloud-hosted— that it would be very straightforward for us to pull this together and offer it to customers. We’re exploring this because people are asking for it."

On Thursday, AT&T announced a new WFH broadband service, called AT&T Home Office Connectivity, that included failover LTE connectivity and a gateway option that is "compatible" with SD-WAN.

Colt Technology Services, which also uses Versa, is also looking at offering an SD-WAN service for employees working from home, according to CEO Keri Gilder.

"I think we can do SD-WAN in the home," Gilder said. "It may not look exactly like it looks today. There may be a bit of innovation required in order to enable it to be a cost-effective environment going forward.

"We actually started investigating this for one of our customers in Germany even prior to pandemic, and it is possible. Right now it is more expensive than a broadband service that you would provide, but it is possible, and there are technologies out there that we can further investigate in order to make it a more economically viable solution."

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World Wide Technology's Neil Anderson, senior director of network solutions, previously said he expected 30% to 40% of the employees currently working from home would not go back to their office spaces.

Anderson said there are several key tenets of the current SD-WAN offerings that he didn't think would apply to a home office environment. But having a wireless router with programmable, SDN-based software that can be easily managed on an SD-WAN service would benefit WFH employees.

"It would be very easy to manage thousands of home offices that way," Anderson said. "When you think of SD-WAN, you think about multiple connections and load balancing, or making sure an application can swing from one connection to another. I'm not sure you'll see a lot of that in home offices. Maybe in executives' homes. Maybe if you do have permanent call centers. Maybe if you do insist that people have more than one broadband connection in case something happens.

"I'm not sure that people will do that right away. But I definitely think that there are benefits from SD-WAN that could manage the performance of that application, give you some visibility of what's going on, and just the ease the management."

SD-WAN is doable (with caveats)

Roy Chua, the founder and principal at AvidThink, said in an email to FierceTelecom that some companies are shipping Wi-Fi-enabled SD-WAN customer premises equipment (CPE) to their key employees, including a secondary LTE backup link in some of them.

By using the in-home broadband internet link—either via Ethernet or piggybacking on top of home Wi-Fi—the CPEs can "mostly" recreate the benefits of SD-WAN with multi-link topologies, according to Chua.

Most of those devices use LTE as a failover link for cost reasons, instead of the SD-WAN multi-direct internet or internet plus MPLS combinations that are used at branch locations. Chua said many companies are also subsidizing bandwidth upgrades for their key employees, which enables "branch at home" deployments that could then apply the same security and access policies similar to a branch location.

"For enterprises that may not be able to afford shipping out CPEs, SD-WAN client software can be used to at least apply security and access policies to employee laptops without the full VPN gateway overhead (or traffic tromboning), and local breakout can be achieved using client access software, or by connecting the systems to a cloud security service to enable clean pipes" Chua said. "In both cases, the key SD-WAN capabilities realized are a set of consistent policies applied to all enterprise assets, visibility and likely improve link and performance monitoring. It's something that the enterprises we talk to seem to want with all employees going forward, regardless of where they are located."

While there's uncertainty on how many employees will return to their office spaces, and when they will do so, it looks as though the coronavirus pandemic is kicking SD-WAN up the evolutionary ladder. SD-WAN vendors and service providers are currently placing their bets on what SD-WAN will look like in home offices, but it's a long way to the finish line.