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SD-WAN in a World Without Net Neutrality

Wikipedia states that net neutrality is:

“The principle that Internet service providers must treat all data on the Internet the same, and not discriminate or charge differently by user, content, website, platform, application, type of attached equipment, or method of communication. For instance, under these principles, internet service providers are unable to intentionally block, slow down or charge money for specific websites and online content.”

While the dust has yet to settle on the landmark repeal of net neutrality, most in I/T are wondering what the effects on their business will be long-term.  Net neutrality rules were designed to ensure that service providers would be unable to discriminate against traffic, content, and applications based on the data, the application in use, or the entities involved in the exchange of data.  With such protections being no more, for what must I/T now prepare in order to ensure that their business is not hampered or even interrupted in a world without net neutrality?

What’s at Stake

Net neutrality prevented service providers from implementing differentiated handling for data from different entities or different applications.  This means that service providers were unable to create a “slow lane” to discourage use of applications or communication with entities that overburden their network.  It prevented service providers from creating pricing structures based on the types of applications a consumer desired to use.  Quite simply, service providers were required to provide a network pipe of a certain capacity according to the desired capacity of the consumer, i.e. “just plumbing”.  The repeal of net neutrality takes these restrictions off the table, thus allowing service providers to regulate, limit, enhance, or otherwise control the types of traffic entering or exiting their network, and, create pricing structures that allow the consumer the ability to influence or override this control.  Put simply, the repeal of net neutrality creates a cash grab for service providers.

Protecting Your Interests

The repeal of net neutrality allows service providers additional revenue opportunities.  These revenue opportunities obviously come at the expense of the consumer.  When coupled with the fact that most service providers provide at best a coarse service level agreement (if any), it is imperative that today’s I/T organizations find ways to protect their interests.  The primary interests being the ability to provide a consistent level of service for employees, partners, and customers, and, protection from being subjected to unreasonable pricing structures or rigid network architectures that compromise the ability to maintain a competitive posture.

First Step: Abstract your WAN

Software-defined Wide Area Networking (SD-WAN) is a fundamentally new model for building and managing your WAN.  Unlike packet routers which use a series of esoteric, archaic commands executed on a shell to define and manage routing, SD-WAN provides intuitive web interfaces for configuration while reducing the complexity needed to integrate multiple heterogeneous transports – something that was practically impossible to do with legacy packet routers.  Further, sites with SD-WAN enjoy link-load balancing, performance-based path selection, and high availability.  Put simply, SD-WAN is the first step in protecting your business interests by abstracting the underlying WAN infrastructure from the operation of your business.

Second Step: Carrier Independence

SD-WAN itself is not a silver bullet.  With the wrong SD-WAN solution, businesses may find themselves in only a slightly better position than they were previously.  Many SD-WAN solutions were designed as a series of functions built on top of legacy packet routing platforms.  While this presents substantial limitations in functionality (which we will discuss later), far and away the largest limitation to business today is the delivery model.  In order to gain the freedom necessary to take advantage of the right carrier and the right connectivity for each site, businesses must adopt a model where contracts with carriers are reduced and control and enforcement of WAN usage is owned and operated by the business itself.  Outsourcing WAN implementation and management to the carrier with which you hold a contract is akin to holding a gun to your own head – you essentially become imprisoned by any changes they choose to make.  SD-WAN should be procured and managed outside of the confines of a carrier contract to ensure the greatest degree of agility.

Third Step: Keep Service Providers Accountable

Service providers are hesitant to provide service level agreements (SLAs) for obvious reasons – it creates a legally-binding scenario wherein, should they not meet your expectations, they are legally liable.  Given the critical nature of connectivity between business locations, to customers and partners over the Internet, and to cloud-hosted services, the proper, performant operation of the WAN is central to the performance of the business itself.  Service providers must be pressured into providing guarantees for availability and capacity at a minimum – and now with the repeal of net neutrality, they should also be pressured into providing latency and packet loss guarantees for traffic transiting their network.  SLAs for these additional dimensions will help to ensure that any traffic discrimination they employ will not negatively affect the performance of your business.

SLAs are beneficial in giving service providers a reason to maintain a certain level of performance and availability.  However, they are of little value if you have no objective way to validate that the SLAs are actually being upheld.

Transform your WAN into an Application Fabric

When deciding to move forward with SD-WAN, businesses are forced to choose an architecture that is essentially an enhancement to traditional, legacy packet routing architectures delivered by a carrier (first generation SD-WAN), or, a modern architecture built specifically to align WAN management with business policies for applications and sites (second generation).

First generation SD-WAN relies on simple packet-level classification of traffic and measurement of WAN conditions (bandwidth, latency, loss, jitter, reachability) to make routing decisions.  While this provides measurable benefit above and beyond traditional routing, it fails to accurately understand what applications are in use beyond coarse port number identification and IP-level discernment of Internet vs Intranet applications, rendering it virtually impossible to create different policies for sub-applications or to force certain cloud applications over different WAN transports.  No concessions are made for the wealth of performance metrics that can be gleaned from the application itself, meaning that traffic handling patterns can change based on WAN conditions without consideration to how the application is actually performing over those WAN links.  Additionally, these systems are typically deployed and managed by service providers that have a vested interest in not providing SLAs and locking you into contracts to limit your freedom and agility, not to mention slow you down when issues arise and you’re subject to their support model and resolution timelines.

Second generation SD-WAN, i.e. AppFabric, fully understands and identifies applications, allowing for fine-grained creation of policy and enforcement based on not only WAN link conditions but also actual application performance (including response time, transaction time, and application throughput).  This level of understanding provides two key benefits to the user.  First, policies can be designed and enforced top-down for sites, applications, and WAN links, rather than ports, IP addresses, and protocols.  Second, with such a wealth of application-related data, the network can learn and self-heal for situations encountered in the network, based on actual user experience rather than indicators of network congestion.  Second generation SD-WAN transforms the WAN into basic plumbing and moves the control and value into your hands.

Action Items

SD-WAN presents a unique opportunity for businesses to not only protect themselves in light of the repeal of net neutrality but also enable the next level of agility and improved user experience.  Businesses should strongly consider the value-add provided by second generation SD-WAN to not simply subject themselves to more of the same of what they’ve had for the past twenty years in wide area networking.  Having a top-down policy for applications and sites that is natively built and designed to support applications deployed anywhere is a fundamental requirement to simplify the WAN, improve agility, and provide the greatest level of user experience, especially in the cloud-first world.  AppFabric not only enables these benefits but protects businesses from the challenges that could be created by service providers that don’t continue to respect net neutrality.