Associate feature: Is SD-WAN the future for public sector networks?

Written by Jenni Davidson on 22 May 2019 in Inside Politics

At Holyrood roundtable on public sector networks, senior IT managers discussed the pros and cons of SD-WAN

Networks - Image credit: Adobe stock images

For those working in public sector IT, the current challenges are manifold, including decreasing budgets, staffing, moving data from in-house to the cloud, managing software as a service and increased demand for bandwidth and connectivity by staff across the sector.

Add to that concerns about reliability, increased security challenges and the need to keep everything working for vital lifeline services, and the public sector tends not to be at the forefront of adopting new technologies.

So, can senior IT figures from the public sector be convinced of the advantages of moving towards a new type of network that is increasing in popularity, but has yet to see widespread take-up by public bodies in Scotland?

SD-WAN, or software-defined wide-area network, is a type of wide-area network – a network covering a large geographical area – that uses existing connectivity such as broadband, 4G, LTE or MPLS to connect up branch offices to the central network or data centres, whether in-house or cloud, at a distance from each other or the user.

One of the differences in SD-WAN is how it optimises the current connectivity to use all the network capacity available, by following pre-set preferences about what software is prioritised and making small shifts to automatically resolve issues in real time.

It can reduce the cost of connectivity, by reducing the need for unused back-up networks and under-utilised bandwidth, while also providing better analytics on network use. Because it can be set up on any form of connectivity, it is also quick to set up. But is this something that public sector bodies are looking for?

At a Holyrood roundtable on networks for the public sector, which was sponsored by SD-WAN provider Silver Peak, IT managers from national and local government as well as the NHS discussed their priorities for managing networks and factors they would have to take into account when weighing up the pros and cons of using SD-WAN.

Mark Hagart, head of data centre and networks for the Scottish Government, noted that the tendency within the civil service was to be quite conservative and avoid taking on anything that could take up staff time unnecessarily, with the focus being on “keeping the lights on”.

He said: “The Scottish Government is quite conservative. It doesn’t do much cutting-edge stuff. We wait till other people go through those bleeding edge burns and then we work off the back of the best solutions.”

However, he added that the Scottish Government had already used SD-WAN in one emergency situation for one of its agencies that didn’t get the rights to get into a building in time to get landlord’s consent.

His colleague Lynsey Foote, from the Scottish Government’s programme management office, added that they would have customers that will ask for new sites on the network fairly quickly, which can’t be delivered by SWAN, the Scottish Wide Area Network, so they were having to look for more alternative solutions for them, as well as for remote sites in places that are hard to get to with low bandwidth and people needing to use applications such AWS as cloud solutions.

For the NHS point of view, one of the networking challenges is that it comprises a variety of sites from huge national hospitals to tiny GP practices on Scottish islands, and although it’s all on the SWAN, speeds can vary from a gigabit, or even 10-gigabit circuits down to slow DSL connections, said Kevin Wilson from NHS National Services Scotland.

Wilson said: “There are challenges. Because a lot of the NHS sites are in pretty remote places, it’s always a challenge to get connectivity into those places. And that’s an ongoing challenge and I don’t think that’s going to improve any time in the next two years, despite the huge investment that’s been made to try and get connections out to those places.

“We’ve also got some third parties, so things like optometrists, pharmacists and dentists, who need to get into the NHS systems and had previously been given standard NHS connections, which were obviously quite expensive.

“Recently been looking to reduce that cost by allowing them to access across the internet, but the applications they access are not actually accessible from the internet so we’re having to put in some fairly innovative solutions to try and give them connectivity while maintaining the security.

“So that’s and ongoing challenge and one of the early use cases we might have for an SD-WAN solution.”

While it’s unlikely that SD-WAN will replace current networks at present, where it clearly comes into its own, in the short term at least, is in the smaller, more one-off solutions to get something off the ground quickly.

Because SD-WAN can run on any form of network connectivity, it provides those agile turnarounds where the more standard solutions such as SWAN could take longer to be approved and set up for new offices or for new partnerships. But asked what would drive change cost is the main factor, as well as whether it would take up extra staff time.

“I think cost is always going to be a big driver for it. If we can save money, either through the cost of circuits or the cost to resource the network, then that’ll be a big driver,” said Wilson.

“Being able to have the agility and being able to quickly meet demand will be another driver for it, but probably less than the cost driver, just because of the way public finances are at the moment.”

This was backed this up by Ian Forrest, head of IT at West Lothian Council.

“This type of technology won’t be driven by the business per se. People on an end site don’t really care what the wiring is in between. They just want things to work.

 “So, it’s not going to be a push and a drive from there, it’s going to be us as IT people who will look at costs and what are we trying to deliver and have our requirements of what we are trying to deliver over that network and will it work, and it’s kind of doing that.

“I think the biggest challenge of it all is just doing the procurement right. Do the procurement right, set the contract up properly and then really if it’s as easy as you say it is, then it shouldn’t be difficult to roll out on site.

However, he questioned what advantage SD-WAN would have over his current network arrangement using fabric, and whether the simplicity of the solution described was simply too good t be true.

He said: “So, you’re saying this one box will replace everything here and that sounds a bit like a utopia. It’s actually seeing that and seeing what, if I did do that, what would the cost savings be and how user friendly, how functional is it compared to having the different solutions that I have just now that manage that, secure that.”

Allan Paton, sales director UK and Ireland for Silver Peak, suggested the difference with SD-WAN was that while there has been a lot of flexibility for some time in managing and hosting data through data centres and virtualisation, there has not been the same level of agility in networks, and this was a case of networks playing “catch-up”.

He said: “It’s a different dynamic completely, because you’re giving that agility to a network or a networking team that wouldn’t have been there before. It always has been this just goes across the wire, we don’t really care how it gets there, it just gets there.

“Now you’re adding a level of control and agility that wasn’t part of that design function, so it’s adding another layer to what you have from a virtualisation space today and all the other components within that part of the technology stack, and to me it’s a catch-up point.”

Silver Peak SD-WAN solutions architect Richard Moir added that drivers such as cost would drive the pace of change and adoption, but a starting point would be some test cases.

He said: “So, it may be over the next 12 to 18 months you’ll maybe find some test cases where it will maybe be suitable for different parts of your service and then the main core infrastructure continues to run as is.

“But then obviously as you start to see some of the benefits of the solution as our solution continues to evolve and when the market evolves, you start to see it as then potentially take parts of your core infrastructure.”

Another area where it could be of financial benefit is managing purchase of bandwidth.

Hagart said that instead of saving money in the last round of spend for circuits, instead using the same spend for more bandwidth, knowing would be needed.

But Paton pointed out that that was an area where SD-WAN could help, comparing a council in England that had decided just to keep buying more bandwidth.

“I said, how does that solve your problems today. It doesn’t really. You’re just spending the same for more bandwidth. Does it solve latency and delay? Does it help you understand what’s actually running over that network? Because you’re guessing, because you’ve no visibility. So, I had that interesting debate and a financial debate. I said spend less on your bandwidth because you can report on it.”

Meanwhile, a major retailer rolled out SD-WAN ahead of their MPLS contract ending so that when it came to negotiations for the new contract, they had a better view of what was running over their network and how it was being used.

It can also provide proof of ‘it’s not the network’, when there are problems, it was suggested, allowing better analysis of flow and even winding back the clock to look at what was happening at a certain point in time if a complaint came in later.

And if the problem was the network, SD-WAN would be able to resolve the problem so that the end-user would not notice any difference, while the network engineers would be alerted and could work behind the scenes to fix it. The aim, said Moir, was for SD-WAN to not only stand for software-defined wide-area network, but self-driving wide-area network.

“No network is perfect all the time,” he said. “Whatever it’s made up of, whether it’s MPLS, whatever it is, at some point it will have issues, whether it’s congestion, whether it’s packet loss, an exchange issue with a card that’s got some error on it, whatever, so it’s being able to work through the issues to identify what the problem is, but in the meantime to work around it from a self-driving perspective.”

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