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IT service providers are encountering rising demand for software-defined-WAN technology amid the expansion of home-based workforces.
Interest among customers in SD-WAN for home workers is a consequence of the coronavirus pandemic and social-distancing policies. SD-WAN provides a mechanism for letting remote personnel access corporate networks, accommodating the broadband internet services available in homes as well as other transport services.
Although SD-WAN adoption addresses an immediate need, it also puts organizations in a position to support a permanent population of remote workers. Channel partners are advising customers on their unfolding SD-WAN adoption and deployment strategies.
Neil Anderson, senior director of network solutions at World Wide Technology (WWT), a technology solutions provider based in St. Louis, has noted an uptick in customer interest in SD-WAN stemming from work-from-home initiatives.
"A number of our customers are deploying SD-WAN for remote worker and home agent solutions," Anderson said.
Ben Niernberg, executive vice president at MNJ Technologies, a managed service provider based in Buffalo Grove, Ill., said COVID-19 has elevated SD-WAN on the list of customer priorities. The company focuses on SD-WAN and edge computing.
"Some of the SD-WAN initiatives have been moved up in the buying cycle," he said.
Telecom Brokerage Inc. (TBI), a master agent and technology services distributor based in Chicago, has encountered a sharp increase in SD-WAN activity, after customer interest trailed off at the end of 2019. The current uptick has brought the company back to mid-2019 numbers, said Joe Fizor, lead solutions engineer at TBI.
"Between January 2020 and today, I would estimate a 50% increase in purely SD-WAN opportunities," he said.
The growth rate could be double that figure, if the estimate includes opportunities that start as other types of offerings, such as unified communications as a service, and then evolve to include SD-WAN, Fizor added.
SD-WAN for home benefits
SD-WAN's centralized management, security capabilities and transport-agnostic nature contribute to the technology's adoption. Anderson cited the ability to more easily manage hundreds or thousands of locations with SD-WAN as part of the technology's current appeal.
The potential for long-term home-based work is another driver.
Peter DiMarco, vice president of VAR sales at D&H Distributing, a distributor based in Harrisburg, Pa., said businesses initially focused on setting up employees to work remotely are now looking into the infrastructure required for permanent remote enablement.
"That is the phase we are entering into now," he said, noting that SD-WAN will be part of the technology mix.
"In the future, some customers are thinking [SD-WAN] positions them well if they decide to keep workers at home permanently, in which case they may add a second connection like LTE or 5G," Anderson added. "And SD-WAN would be ideal to manage the multiple connections and guarantee application traffic."
The focus on application traffic can boost quality of experience, another motivation for organizations suddenly supporting work-from-home employees. Niernberg said MNJ's SD-WAN customers aim to "get the network infrastructure and connectivity set and improve on the remote work experience."
Anderson pointed out that many SD-WAN offerings have integrated forward error correction, a feature that "enables higher voice and video quality, even over connections that have issues."
The potential for cost savings provides another SD-WAN adoption incentive.
"One customer I spoke with summed up the decision as a cost savings to his company," Fizor said.
That customer compared the cost of leased office space to the cost of rolling out SD-WAN with a 4G backup connection to end users. According to Fizor, the customer found, when taking bulk ordering into account, it was able to "make significant savings while bettering his at-home employees."
Niernberg also noted customers viewing SD-WAN as an opportunity for operational cost savings. "Companies are going to look for that as we move into an economy that is not as robust as it was before," he said.
Niernberg said MNJ is looking for an SD-WAN technology that would be cost-effective for a "branch of one" and work in conjunction with other products. He said his company is currently testing technology options, with an eye toward eventually providing an edge-based, "office in a box" offering.
SD-WAN isn't the only technology fueled by the work-from-home shift. Fizor listed security, unified communications and collaboration offerings as also experiencing huge spikes in demand. Computing devices for remote workers, such as laptops, have also seen increased sales (see "Demand for remote worker gear").
In addition, digital workspace technology is getting a lift in the current environment, with SD-WAN beginning to play a role.
Mike Heintzelman, vice president of global vendors at Tech Data, a distributor based in Clearwater, Fla., said SD-WAN is now being incorporated into some digital workspace technologies. He said digital workspace offerings "make the user experience more effective and efficient as more and more people work from home."
Fizor, meanwhile, cited Secure Access Service Edge (SASE) as a technology to watch in the next 12 months. Gartner, which coined the category in 2019, incorporates SD-WAN, secure web gateway, cloud access security broker and firewall-as-a-service functions. Palo Alto Networks' agreement to purchase CloudGenix is an industry move that points in this direction, he added.
"I'm sure we will see more of this in the future -- a blur of next-gen firewall services, with robust SD-WAN solutions and identity access management solutions -- as it becomes more and more crucial to protect all business assets, not just the LAN edge as many customers do today," Fizor noted.
While SASE continues to take shape, SD-WAN adoption is getting a significant boost from remote work.
"Overall, the SD-WAN market is moving quickly into the mass adoption phase," WWT's Anderson said. "We've had many customers exploring for two years or longer, and now we are seeing much more mass adoption."
Demand for remote worker gear
The early days of COVID-19 response and the initial surge in remote work sparked demand for laptops, webcams, monitors and other peripheral devices for at-home employees.
Matt Stoyka, chief solutions officer at Rackspace, a managed cloud provider, said he had seen companies struggle to keep up with demand for remote worker gear. He said Rackspace isn't in the business of procuring laptops but can "leverage our relationships" in the Rackspace partner ecosystem.
The demand for laptops and related devices, however, "is starting to slow down," noted Niernberg of MNJ Technologies. "We don't see the need for laptops or video cameras nearly as high as we did," he said.
Instead, a second wave of demand has coalesced around network infrastructure, security and cloud, he added.