Over the past couple of months, we’ve been exploring the topic of Wide Area Networks (WANs), and particularly the options available to businesses as they look for effective networking solutions that can scale across multiple sites.

We’ve outlined some of the challenges growing businesses face in extending a secure, reliable, efficient WAN as they open more and more branches, looking at some of the limitations of traditional leased line connections when sites multiply. We have highlighted some of the alternatives offered by modern technology, describing the amalgamation of routing protocols and virtualized private networking known as MPLS IPVPN, and investigating how businesses can get the most from it.

We have also looked at the technology often touted as the ‘future’ of business networking, SD-WAN – software-defined wide area networking. But while SD-WAN offers clear benefits in terms of flexibility and scalability which are comparable to the advantages cloud computing offers in the IT stack, we have also discussed how many businesses are adopting SD-WAN to complement rather than replace technologies like MPLS, establishing what are known as hybrid networking approaches.

For the final blog in this series, we want to revisit this theme and ask – is hybrid networking the future of WAN? What kind of configurations are we talking about when we mention a hybrid network, and how do the different technologies work with one another? Beyond that, how can we expect networking technologies to evolve, what will influence their development, and what will the impact be for businesses looking to improve their WAN capabilities as part of a wider digital transformation strategy?

What is a hybrid network?

In the simplest terms, a hybrid network is one that makes use of more than one technology to create links between users, devices and sites. There are various different networking technologies available, including traditional IP (direct internet access), MPLS, 4G LTE, VPLS (Virtual Private LAN Service), VPN (Virtual Private Network) and more.

A hybrid network approach involves making strategic choices about which of these technologies to use in your WAN to achieve different ends. So, for example, internet links are low cost and readily available – the sort of network connection you use when you sign up for a cloud service accessed via a web browser or app. On the flipside, these busy public networks pose concerns over data security and performance/latency issues.

MPLS, meanwhile, is extremely reliable for latency-sensitive, high capacity applications like VoIP telephony and video streaming, but it is relatively expensive and not entirely straightforward to roll out to new premises as a business grows. 4G LTE offers mobility and flexibility, perfect if you want your company WAN to be accessible from anywhere for a distributed, mobile workforce.

As well as comprising different link technologies, a genuine hybrid WAN also pays attention to how all of these different components work together to create a cohesive whole, rather than being adopted in a piecemeal fashion. This includes taking steps to manage the multiple network elements centrally to ensure consistency of service. One practical reason why this is necessary is that a hybrid network will usually involve working with multiple carriers providing the various different connectivity services, so it is expedient to have a way to monitor and manage usage and quality of service across all.

SD-WAN isn’t the only way to consolidate different network technologies into a single, easily managed whole, but that is certainly one of its benefits. SD-WAN often gets compared directly to MPLS, IP links, 4G LTE and so on, but technically speaking it is a means of configuring and managing WANs, not a connectivity protocol in its own right. SD-WAN sits at a layer above link technologies, abstracting control functions from the mode of connectivity itself. As a platform-agnostic, virtualized technology, it is perfect for consolidating multiple links into a single point of control, bringing benefits such as increased resilience and security, greater efficiency and enhanced agility to all of them.

SD-WAN is not equivalent to hybrid networking. But what does stand out is that the majority of companies adopting SD-WAN are also running hybrid networks. In a recent survey we commissioned into SD-WAN adoption trends, 56% of companies told us they were planning to deploy SD-WAN primarily on top of existing internet and mobile networks, while 54% said combining ethernet and internet was their main objective. Amongst companies looking at rolling out SD-WAN across five or more sites, 44% said they wanted to integrate MPLS and internet connections.

What are the benefits of hybrid networks?

To again start with the most simple answer, taking a hybrid approach to WAN means embracing the fact that, the bigger your business gets, the less amenable to one-size-fits-all approaches it becomes.

Any organization operating across several sites, and perhaps dozens, faces a dilemma. On the one hand, there is an obvious desire to maintain consistent, centralized, strategic management of all operations, to ensure that the whole team is shooting towards the same goal, as it were. But on the other hand, there are often major practical obstacles to making systems, processes, infrastructure and, yes, networks identical across all branches and sites.

If you were to sum up the direction of travel in how typical modern business infrastructures are evolving, you would use terms like greater agility, greater complexity, greater differentiation and diversification of services and so on. All of these factors are also driving the evolution of WAN, and a powerful argument can be made that hybrid networking approaches are best suited to embracing and facilitating such diversification and complexity.

Those drivers of WAN evolution include the fact that numbers of networked devices are growing at a rate of knots, generating more data and more traffic than ever before. This puts available resources under great strain, creating demand for greater efficiency. Flexibility is another key factor, as work is decoupled from location and people increasingly find themselves operating in multi cloud environments.

It’s a similar story for scalability, as businesses look beyond vertical growth, seeking to add value and create new revenue streams by expanding their service portfolio. WANs have to be able to grow and adapt to these changing demands without reconfiguration and expansion causing a time lag on new service launches. And underpinning all of this, businesses are still looking to control their costs in highly competitive markets, whilst guaranteeing digital security across multiple locations and multiple networks.

A hybrid approach to WAN means you are not trying to force system solutions onto complex and sophisticated operational frameworks. An analogy can be drawn with cloud computing here. Increasingly, instead of talking about ‘the cloud’ as a single, monolithic entity, businesses are talking in terms of multi clouds or hybrid clouds, utilizing different services from different providers to get the best value and performance, mixing up the flexibility and cost-effectiveness of public cloud solutions with the security and control of private cloud.

The same applies to WAN – it doesn’t have to be a single technology from a single provider, and indeed to get the most from it, you might want it to be the sum of many parts. If you want to meet the needs of a VoIP-based contact center and allow field staff to work effectively on your network on the move, you probably need MPLS and 4G LTE as part of your technology mix. Because of the cost savings involved, businesses are increasingly keen to use public IP connections as the core of their WAN, but the concerns of security, privacy and performance mean MPLS IPVPN still has a role to play.

The challenge for WAN technology is to be able to embrace multiplicity in how and where people work, to allow workers to access systems just as effectively from home and in public places as they do in the office, to maintain secure connections across 4G, MPLS, broadband etc, but to do so with a degree of consistency and centralized control. Embracing the right blend of technologies to deliver what your business needs is surely the most logical way to achieve that.

What about the future of WAN?

Implicit in those drivers of WAN evolution outlined above is the fact that connectivity is becoming more and more integral to how businesses operate. The reasons why we’re adding more and more devices to our networks, why we’re looking for ways to keep people online as they work from different locations and move around, and why network flexibility and scalability matter to service provision ultimately boil down to this – in a digital world, in digital marketplaces, everything happens online, placing networks front and center of operational priorities.

Going forward, it will become increasingly difficult to separate network development from core considerations around business growth and development. WANs will therefore evolve in step with the operational ambitions of businesses. As this article from TechRadar puts it:

“The networks of the future will be fast, smart and increasingly autonomous. Their autonomy will go way beyond just basic automation features. These networks will be self-driving, self-healing and self-operating most of the time, and help solve problems across all industries and organizations. This will range from remotely connecting doctors with their patients or powering next-level robotics, to identifying mission-critical parts wherever they are within the supply chain on Earth and sending them up to the international space station when they’re needed. The power of these autonomous networks and the freedom they provide to organizations around the world will be almost limitless.”

In this vision, thanks to AI, networks will no longer be just the ‘dumb pipes’ we use as vehicles for communication and data transactions, but active agents in delivering value from business processes. And it won’t just be the ‘smart’ revolution that helps to achieve these ends. With the imminent arrival of 5G mobile, the world has its first model for what a fully virtualized approach to network technology can achieve in the form of massive capacity, ultra-fast transfer speeds and ultra-low latency. And with the development of Blockchain, one day the distributed nature of large, multi-site operations may become an asset, not an obstacle to overcome. Thanks to the decentralized, self-verifying, tamper-proof qualities of the technology, it’s possible to imagine a time when WANs built on a Blockchain achieve hitherto unimaginable levels of security and resilience.

However the future pans out, one thing seems certain – WANs are surely only going to become more sophisticated, an increasingly potent cocktail of intersecting technologies to deliver the connectivity and quality of service the present and future digital worlds rely on. The model of simple point-to-point, one-dimensional WANs has surely had its day.

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