Mobility and Cloud Strain Legacy Networks

Federal agencies are clearly deep in the throes of change. Those changes are driven by mandates to increase mobility and embrace the cloud. The change involves not only where employees can work—in remote offices, at home or on the road—but how they work. Ensuring fast, secure, reliable access to applications and agency resources wherever they are stored, and wherever and whenever employees need them, continues to become a greater challenge.

In many cases, existing network infrastructure simply can’t keep up with these growing demands. Accessing large multimedia files, for example, typically requires significant bandwidth. Older networks are often slowed to an unacceptable speed. Traditional wide area networks (WAN) lack the performance and high availability to meet growing demands. Most WANs also use connectivity protocols like MPLS, ATM or SONET, none of which work well with cloud-based applications.

These challenges are causing many agencies to rethink their existing network strategy. According to a report from consulting group Ashton, Metzler & Associates, organizations are rethinking their approach to WAN design for the following reasons:

  • support real-time applications like voice and/or video
  • increase security
  • improve application performance
  • provide access to public cloud computing services
  • reduce cost

Other critical factors include increasing network speed, improving the ability to run remote applications, and enhancing network access for branch and remote workers.

For many organizations, the first step is optimizing the existing WAN. WAN optimization usually involves adding functions to better use existing bandwidth through processes like compression, deduplication, caching and reduced latency. This is an important step in making the best use of the networking technology already in place. It also goes a long way toward improving application acceleration.

For today’s wide area networks, however, that’s often insufficient. To efficiently and effectively handle modern applications and other resources accessed by remote users requires further optimization through a software-defined WAN (SD-WAN). In many cases, an SD-WAN, where software controls most aspects of the network, can provide the scalability, performance boosts and improved security agency networks need. The SD-WAN also can reduce network complexity and simplify management.

An SD-WAN helps network managers monitor, manage and troubleshoot all parts of the network from a central console, even those in far-flung branch offices. The technology also standardizes and boosts security by embedding security policies into the network and enforcing data segmentation. Speed and reliability improve due to continuous monitoring of network links and the ability to route applications on the fastest links based on their level of importance to the organization.

During a panel at 2016’s Enterprise Connect conference, experts agreed SD-WANs should have these attributes:

  • Centralized administration: The network’s control plane is separate from the data plane and abstracted into a software layer.
  • Automated provisioning: Everything is done via software without manual intervention, so it’s easy for agencies to send fully configured and remotely managed network devices to branch offices.
  • Orchestration capabilities: As panel leader Zeus Kerravala says, network modifications should be only orchestrated as part of the application behavior. In other words, the application should direct the network to create a dedicated path between the two points for the duration of the session and then remove the path when the session ends.
  • Application communication through APIs: This is the most effective way to perform network orchestration. It also helps agencies adopt true policy-based networks and enable policies to drive application and network changes.
  • Big data and analytics: An SD-WAN should be able to effectively collect and analyze relevant data. This information is critical for helping agencies fine-tune the network to optimize application performance.