SD-WAN: The Bridge to a 5G future

By: Jacob Chacko, Regional Director – Middle East, Saudi & South Africa at Aruba, a Hewlett Packard Enterprise company

After over a decade of 4G connectivity, leaders in global telecoms are now racing to roll out the fifth generation of broadband cellular technology and meet today’s twin challenges of increased network activity and bandwidth demands. The pressure to upgrade has only become greater due to the pandemic, which shifted the global workforce from the office to the home, and in doing so greatly increased the number of digital touchpoints.

Research conducted by Markets & Markets indicates that the enterprise 5G market is expected to grow from $2.1 billion in 2021 to $10.9 billion by 2027, at a CAGR of 31.8%. In the short term, the task at hand for service providers involves enabling IoT communications, fixed wireless access, edge analytics and enhanced mobile broadband. To achieve this, service providers will have to lean on existing technologies. SD-WAN is one of the key technologies that has the potential to aid service providers in their delivery of a higher quality of network experience to meet ever-increasing user expectations.  

5G: Untapped Potential

According to a study conducted by IDC, it is estimated that there will be 51 million IoT devices by 2021. The advent of edge computing will serve to enable this influx of IoT devices. However, as connectivity increases, so too does the amount of data that must be processed, both in real-time and close to the source.

Facilitating huge volumes of data at high speeds is a key function and much promised benefit of 5G. Yet despite providing higher bandwidth to operations, 5G is limited in range. It is expected that 5G networks will be powered by hundreds of thousands of small cells. However, the denser the network of cells, the more difficult they become to manage, operate and maintain, therefore the crux of the issue becomes not only the optimization of these networks, but also the automation.

SD-WAN: The Enabler

Connection and integration across the relevant compute edges is integral to any 5G operation. SD-WAN platforms can help service providers by allowing for automation and aiding in the optimization of traffic and management of 5G cells. Unlike a traditional router-centric WAN architecture, a Software-defined Wide Area Network (SD-WAN) is designed to support applications in on-premises data centres, public or private clouds, and SaaS services, such as Microsoft 365, Dropbox and Workday. At its core, an SD-WAN is a virtual WAN architecture that aims to securely connect users to applications. It achieves this by enabling organisations to leverage a combination of transport services, such as MLPS, LTE, and broadband internet services.

As digital transformation tightens its grip on industry, many enterprises are making use of the cloud and subscribing to software-as-a-service (Saas), rendering the traditional WAN increasingly less fit for purpose. SD-WAN identifies applications and provides intelligent routing, with each class of application receiving the appropriate Quality of Service (QoS) and security policy enforcement. This quality in particular is vital in the enablement of 5G. Through SD-WAN’s ability to incorporate machine learning, it enables networks to adapt to varying circumstances and automatically route high-bandwidth traffic to 5G cells and the edge.

Ensuring high quality user experience for 5G is paramount, therefore it is vital that service providers evaluate SD-WAN vendors on the following:

  • Granular, intelligent application-driven routing. The ability to automatically prioritize traffic based on bandwidth should be a key area of concern. Lower bandwidth traffic should be routed to other available transport such as LTE or broadband, allowing for high-bandwidth traffic like video streaming to be routed through a 5G cell.
  • Centralized management. Facilitating the management, maintenance, and operation of edges and 5G cells by intelligently rerouting traffic during provisions and upgrades. When enterprises deploy new applications or when a security policy change is necessary, a business-driven SD-WAN enables these changes to be delivered in minutes, while simultaneously minimizing the opportunity for human error.
  • Machine learning. Automation is key. It is vital that any SD-WAN vendor guarantees that their network can adapt to varying conditions in real-time and provide optimal routing to the edges and 5G cells.
  • Security integration with business-intent networking. Cybersecurity is an ever-present issue. By directing traffic to the right security services and enabling application-driven security policies enforced from a centralized position, service providers will not have to compromise on either cost or performance.
  • Virtual WAN overlays. Quality of service is hugely important, and network resources must be flexible, and optimized. 5G networks depend on network slicing, whereby each slice receives a unique set of resources. By using both technologies in combination, service providers can steer critical traffic to the 5G network where it can be isolated to a particular slice depending on its specific requirements.

As 5G and edge computing adoption increases, so too will the demands of users. Service providers must be ready to provide an ever-present and high performing network. The initial success of 5G deployment will demand a network that has automation and security at the centre of its operation, like the one offered by SD-WAN.

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