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Unlocking SD-WAN Value, Explained

By Pedro Marques
| | 17 min read

Summary

Although organizations are increasing IT spending on enterprise networks, they often do not maximize their return on the investment. Digital experience assurance is essential to unlocking the value of these projects, especially in SD-WAN deployments.


Ever since I started working in IT, my two biggest learnings have been that:

  1. Digitization and its associated challenges are a never-ending endeavor, and 

  2. Companies are as innovative as their understanding of the difference between tech investments and expenses.

When speaking with customers, particularly large IT departments, there is usually a pattern of urgency, a lack of time and resources, and a discomfort with decision-making. These are all consequences of being an innovative company that meets ever-changing customers' needs and expectations. In many ways, change is a constant state in IT, wherein regular disruptions to established processes, existing assumptions, and business purposes are the norm. Therefore, a practitioner’s job is not only about adopting new technologies, but also it is about transforming how value is created and delivered in a digital economy. This process might entail some risks and require continuous adaptation and learning, but it is crucial to generate new opportunities.

Navigating constant change in IT involves a careful balance between managing expenses and making strategic investments. Organizations that distinguish between the two make strategic IT investments to generate savings and profits over a period of time while viewing their expenses as routine operational costs that are not expected to yield significant returns. Such organizations often seek innovations that will help them improve operational efficiency, digital experience, or business agility. They are often better at extracting value out of IT solutions, allocating resources, and planning for the mid-to-long-term future.

In this post, we'll explore why digital experience assurance can be an exceptionally simple and shrewd way to enhance your organization’s agility, execution, and return on investment, using SD-WAN as an example.

Simplicity Is the Abstraction of Complexity

For digital transformation and innovation to happen, an adequate infrastructure, particularly the network, has to be in place. Organizations may need cloud workloads if they want agility and scale. If they want the flexibility of SaaS, they may need to decentralize Internet access. If they want a better digital experience, they may need provider redundancy. And if they want end-to-end security, they might opt for a Secure Access Service Edge (SASE) architecture. These solutions are only possible with a Wide Area Network (WAN) architecture that’s capable of handling them, which is why software-defined WANs (SD-WANs) have become the norm.

For a long time, WAN deployments connected sites using dedicated MPLS connections, with the Internet being provided centrally through a data center. SD-WANs advanced that architecture by using more intelligent routers with added processing capabilities. They made it possible to have end-to-end encryption, steer application traffic across multiple network connections in real time, and centralize control plane and fabric orchestration. SD-WAN solutions, therefore, yield tangible benefits, such as enabling Internet connections to be used as a cost-effective alternative to MPLS, facilitating direct site access to cloud services, improving quality of service, and optimizing WAN bandwidth.

Graphic showcasing the complexity of the enterprise networking environment
Figure 1. Present WAN architectures need to accommodate future changing needs

Did these and other benefits make things less complex? We may have stopped writing commands on routers, configuring tunnels, or keeping track of routing tables, but that is just because we now have the software needed to automate the growing complexity. Today’s networking requirements mean that doing so by humans by hand would be monumentally difficult, more expensive, inefficient, slow, and prone to error. Now, the tactical question arises: does the flexibility, scalability, and performance of SD-WAN generate enough value to organizations to justifying the costs of deploying one? Yet, if we considered it as just an expense, we may overlook an instrumental strategic investment that opens up pivotal capabilities in today’s world.

The return on investment (ROI) of SD-WAN can be considerable. It makes the network easier to manage, requires fewer people, and leverages cheaper Internet links that can improve network architecture and reduce overall incidents. Additionally, SD-WAN creates digital value by equipping businesses with unprecedented agility and adaptability. It is now possible to provision cloud regions, onboard new services, and implement routing or security policies worldwide in minutes. The extent to which ROI is maximized depends on an organization’s knowledge and comfort level with the underlying complexity and its abstraction, and their ability to exploit it.

Visibility Has Become Paramount

SD-WAN allows networks to be more dynamic; however, they are often more static than designed to be, and they're often not used to their full potential. That is partially due to the fear that some configuration change may break something somewhere. Ultimately, pushing a button in an elegant interface can be more stressful than an Enter command in a dated CLI, given the number of changes the previous can yield. It’s a legitimate concern that is well known by IT teams. After all, an outage due to misconfiguration can be as harmful as any other; it can disrupt services and users, cause unpredictable application experiences, and lead to costly support operations and troubleshooting, potentially damaging an organization’s reputation and confidence to execute.

Knowing how the network and corresponding services are performing, spotting degradations regardless of how small they are, and understanding what caused them is critical to de-risking SD-WAN operations. Having these sorts of insights at your fingertips provides much needed peace of mind when going about implementing changes.

Screenshot of ThousandEyes outage map
Figure 2. At ThousandEyes, we are quite familiar with network and application outages

Why isn’t there a similar apprehension when adopting SaaS or outsourcing infrastructure and services to hyperscalers, delivery networks, or cloud proxies? That adds critical dependencies on the Internet and external providers, vastly extending the network perimeter out of organizations’ direct control. Sure, there can be a five- or six-nines service level agreement (SLA), but outages are inevitable. On top of that, the Internet is a best-effort network, so it will degrade, break, and converge in ways that impact end users', customers', and enterprises’ digital experience. At the end of the day, network teams often bear the blame for service degradation. They are the ones who will receive the complaints and incident tickets and need to figure out and resolve issues or at least prove their innocence.

Network visibility pinpoints whether problems originate with SaaS vendors, the Internet, public cloud providers, or an organization’s private infrastructure. It can also help IT teams understand the impact of an SD-WAN policy rollout across different sites, services, and applications in real-time. As a result, rollouts that were typically done in stages due to the difficulty of evaluating how they would affect user experience, can be performed much faster and more frequently. Should a misconfiguration take place, network visibility allows for rollbacks to be implemented just as quickly.

ThousandEyes as a Catalyst for SD-WAN ROI

ThousandEyes plays a crucial role in enabling our customers to have a deep understanding of their networks’ health and performance, to assess the digital experience of employees and users, and to identify precisely where to look when issues occur. This comprehensive insight empowers organizations to use their SD-WAN infrastructure actively rather than passively, putting it to work towards their goals and extracting the maximum value out of their investment. 

When used in conjunction with an SD-WAN, ThousandEyes provides the following advantages:

  • Instantly detect performance degradations on a per site and per service level. Network and support teams can use this insight to act promptly, even before users notice any issue.

  • Accelerate troubleshooting and resolution operations by quickly identifying problem sources regardless where they occur. Monitoring is not only available for internal but also external networks and services, which can be useful when providers say traffic is not making it across to their servers.

  • XaaS and on-premises branch performance metrics. Whether a service is delivered via direct Internet access, cloud on-ramp, VPN tunnel, firewall, proxy, or even through a private link, DNS and certificate information, response times and codes, errors, loss, latency, jitter, and BGP data will be collected.

  • Know when external providers experience outages and are the ones to blame. As-a-service vendors are slow in communicating degradations, commonly doing it post-mortem, making IT teams waste time on finding explanations.

  • Underlay visibility. SD-WAN dashboards can typically warn about overlay site-to-site latency, jitter, or packet loss, but they are unable to showcase why. In the figure below, we can see how ThousandEyes immediately locates what is causing site-to-site latency. Can you spot the reason?

Screenshot of path visualization with high latency
Figure 3. ThousandEyes path visualization, from top to bottom: internet underlay, MPLS underlay, overlay and direct internet access to an Office 365 application. Red links means high latency.
  • Track SLAs, new services rollouts, compare performance between branches and providers, and understand fluctuations. Assess digital quality baselines, establish actionable KPIs, and measure projects’ success.

  • Dynamic alerts, which use regular network and application performance as expected behavior, triggering only on abnormal deviations. Service admins are free from having to set static thresholds that are not reliable across sites, reducing false positives while increasing alert accuracy and their utility.

  • Native integrations with Cisco Catalyst SD-WAN and Cisco Meraki allows ThousandEyes to be deployed automatically, with its agents provisioned directly on Cisco Catalyst, Cisco ISR, or Meraki MX devices with no need for additional computing infrastructure or dedicated monitoring appliances.

  • Accelerate and de-risk operations by understanding the holistic impact of policy changes, which promotes automated workflows and allows for faster rollouts that help improve business agility and digital consistency across the entire organization. This insight is particularly needed in NetDevOps environments.

With better visibility into your SD-WAN environment, you can better manage blind spots and deal with increasing IT complexity, all while drastically reducing mean time to detect (MTTD) and repair (MTTR).

Closing Thoughts

Incorporating digital experience assurance as part of an SD-WAN can bring significant productivity benefits and reduce downtime and the costs associated with downtime. In a 2023 study from Forrester Research, The Total Economic Impact™ Of Cisco ThousandEyes for Enterprise Networks, a composite organization representing five current ThousandEyes customers saw:

  • 60% faster MTTI for disruptive incidents by year three, resulting in improved revenue assurance,

  • 88% fewer FTE-hours spent per incident by year three, improving ITOps and NetOps productivity, and

  • 274% return on investment (ROI) by year three and payback in less than 6 months.

As IT teams gain experience using ThousandEyes, they transition from troubleshooting operations and root cause analysis to more proactive uses, such as decreasing incidents and improving network operations and maintenance windows’ success. And as organizations’ build more familiarity and trust, they begin using ThousandEyes in critical decision-making processes, such as resource allocation, vendor selection, or architecting new services. This strategic move accelerates business growth, enhances brand competitiveness, and streamlines routes to market.

The value of visibility is often only appreciated after it is experienced—something that happens in our everyday lives. If we were to travel back in time and survey users about their sentiments for navigation apps or car parking cameras, the enthusiasm would likely be lower than it is today. Everyone could live without them back then, although that is hardly the case now. People have come to realize these products make them more efficient, confident, and capable, thereby improving their experience and enhancing their capabilities and value derived from cars in this case.

ThousandEyes WAN Insights does a similar thing, but instead, for Cisco SD-WAN. Based on historical data, it recommends the best network paths for each service and site according to an organization's requirements. It can even identify how many users would benefit from each suggested policy change as well as the projected improvements to user experience. Now, that is putting SD-WAN to work!

Screenshot of a dashboard in WAN Insights
Figure 4. WAN Insights dashboard view

Just as teams have to respond immediately to major incidents, despite their rarity, to avoid excessive remediation costs, they should also recognize that there can be incremental productivity gains that accumulate to substantial value creation and savings over time. Unfortunately, these minor improvements often receive less attention than they deserve. And, as the technology landscape continues to evolve, future investments should be forward-looking and ready to take on the uncertainty.

ThousandEyes helps organizations be better positioned for the future, whatever it may be. Feel free to share this article with your team. And, if you are interested in trying ThousandEyes, do reach out to us. We are more than happy to discuss how ThousandEyes can address your organization’s use cases and conduct a proof of value. These are quick and easy to implement, with close to no overhead, and will rapidly demonstrate improvements.


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