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Application Performance in the Age of SD-WAN

Enterprises are increasingly moving away from legacy WANs in favor of internet-centric, software-defined WANs (SD-WANs).
May 5th, 2021 9:00am by
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Mike Hicks
Mike is a principal solutions analyst at ThousandEyes, a part of Cisco, and a recognized expert with more than 30 years of experience in network and application performance.

In the olden days, users were in offices and all apps lived in on-premises data centers. The WAN (wide area network) was what connected all of them. Today, with the adoption of SaaS apps and associated dependencies such as cloud services and third-party API endpoints, the WAN is getting stretched beyond recognition. In its place, the internet is directly and exclusively carrying a large — if not majority — share of all enterprise traffic flows.

Enterprises are increasingly moving away from legacy WANs in favor of internet-centric, software-defined WANs, also called SD-WANs or software-defined networking in a wide area network. Architected for interconnection with cloud and external services, adopting SD-WANs can play a critical role in making enterprise networks cloud-ready, more cost-efficient and better suited to delivering quality digital experiences to customers and employees at all locations. But the transformation brings new visibility needs, and ensuring that SD-WAN delivers on expectations requires a new approach to monitoring that addresses network visibility and application performance equally.

WAN in the Light of Modern Needs

Traditional WAN networks mainly involve installing connections to an office. Once a connection is established, the WAN network is essentially fixed. But routing customers, clients and employees through a WAN network that might be geographically distant risks creating delays for the increasingly real-time needs of businesses and workers. Given the cost and complexity, any re-routing and customization of the infrastructure after the fact is not an option. Plus, a WAN network’s lack of flexibility limits enterprises’ ability to maximize traffic and resource efficiency. Put simply, WAN is increasingly out of touch with business expectations.

The Customizable SD-WAN 

With SD-WAN, the network is entirely virtualized. There’s an opportunity for an adaptive, customized network infrastructure that responds efficiently to an organization’s changing needs. But with all that agility comes a new challenge.

With SD-WAN comes an increased dependence on third-party apps and services. That subsequently introduces obstructions with many external providers reached across an unpredictable internet, where a lack of visibility can hamper disruption domain isolation, prevent fast issue resolution and ultimately affect business outcomes. For application owners, this web of external networks and services can also introduce vulnerabilities and blind spots when it comes to managing app performance. To assure uninterrupted digital experiences, it’s critical to gain comprehensive visibility into all external dependencies you’ll be relying on to operate your applications and services over SD-WAN.

End-to-End Visibility into SD-WAN App Performance 

Connectivity is the focus when it comes to the SD-WAN fabric and quality of service for SaaS apps and cloud services delivered to remote connections and global offices.

Uninterrupted connectivity and app performance, therefore, is contingent on visibility into the networks you own and the ones you don’t — i.e. the cloud and internet networks that are now powering your SD-WAN. In this use case, synthetic monitoring is starting to take center stage, using scripts to emulate the expected workflow and path that an end-user would take when using an application, no matter how remote. Paired with network pathing around routing visibility, modern synthetics provide an understanding of how users experience an application and the deeper perspective required to see the characteristics of an application’s underlying network.

SD-WAN is one of the most consequential network architectural changes an enterprise can make. Establishing monitoring capabilities that extend into the full breadth of external cloud and internet-centric networks that power SD-WAN will be critical for its success. For app performance and digital experiences to be always on and always fast, IT teams will need end-to-end visibility and a correlated view between network and application performance for a complete picture of end-user SaaS and app performance to spot and escalate any performance issues quickly.

Looking ahead, in-office work is likely to be increasingly replaced by remote and hybrid work strategies that run on cloud- and internet-centric networks. As employees and customers connect to business resources in more diverse ways — via VPNs, home laptops, mobile, etc. — SD-WAN’s impact and importance as the fabric that ties it all together can’t be understated. Neither can the end-to-end monitoring capabilities that will allow app owners to quickly see and manage any performance issues, no matter where they occur.

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