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We are now more digital than ever before. Whether it was the pandemic or companies’ realisation that the post-pandemic future will be a digital one, companies are speeding up their pace of digitalisation. 

Gartner calls this surge a digital reset, not an evolutionary step forward. Andrew White, Gartner’s distinguished vice president analyst at Gartner, noted in his blog that the current digital reset is a response to the “giant dislocation that is taking place right now; the unhinging of the global economy and society, and the aftermath.” 

While digitalisation is now a business imperative, companies face a significant roadblock: their networks. Their current pipelines are simply not designed for such extreme performance, flexibility, and interconnectivity today’s workforce needs. 

So, it is not surprising that in the whitepaper “SD-WAN Clarified: A Survival Guide for Network Managers,” jointly developed by Telstra, VMware, and GlobalData, respondents said they prioritised their budget for building more agile pipelines. 

Companies are investing more in introducing or expanding unified communications and collaboration (UC&C), rolling out standard ICT workplaces for remote workers, cloud migration, speeding up digital services provisioning, and investing in automation and remote IT management. The refocus makes sense as companies look to balance agility and infrastructure resilience in the wake of the pandemic. 

It is also driving up interest in SD-WAN. The research noted that nearly 90% of global companies are exploring the network technology or deploying it because of COVID-19; two-thirds are reassessing their WAN strategy with SD-WAN in mind. 

But why now, especially when SD-WAN is not new to the market? What is driving the sudden surge in SD-WAN interest? 

To shed some light on these questions and more, CDOTrends organised a virtual roundtable that invited Hong Kong-based IT leaders to discuss the challenges of modern enterprise networking. They also highlighted essential reasons why SD-WAN is becoming an exciting option for most companies. 

Flexibility to cope with market dynamics 

Gary Leong, the product portfolio lead for managed network services at Telstra, noted that the dynamic and unpredictable environment pushed many companies to embrace digital. Many had no choice; they simply had to find ways to keep their employees productive and engaged while working closely with their partners and customers to withstand supply chain shocks and workplace disruptions.   

The digital reset also made companies re-examine their work processes. For example, Leong pointed out that a simple concept like local IT support had to change for hybrid working. 

“What we see in the post-COVID-19 world is that enterprises are beginning to rethink their future network strategy to cope with the current changing environment. Whatever investment they’re going to make has to ensure scalability, flexibility, and security,” Leong said. 

Network traffic has also changed. In a distributed environment where hybrid working is the new normal, a more considerable portion of the network traffic “traversing across the new workplace and the cloud” becomes mission-critical, observed Leong. Companies need to pay extra attention to network availability, latency, and data security as it now directly impacts productivity and the bottom line. 

“Your network needs to be elastic enough to cope with the changing environment so that you can keep the lights on at all times. To achieve this, you need an SD-WAN solution that can provide you with the scalability, flexibility, visibility, and control,” Leong added. 

These points resonated with the participants. In a live poll conducted during the discussion, they picked cloud migration and performance as the key reasons to transform their network. 

Thomas Lloyd, a senior IT practitioner at a financial services firm, felt cloud migration was already a concern before the pandemic. “I guess COVID-19 just added a little bit of extra complexity to that” as employees were connecting from their homes with networks the company did not control. 

“This is a limiting factor for us. In the office environment, we could control end-to-end. But as employees move into an uncontrolled environment, they still expect the same level of service,” he added, echoing the key conclusions from the whitepaper. 

Ken Lee, chief distribution officer at Blue Insurance Hong Kong, saw automation as a significant driver. While his business was already cloud-ready before COVID-19, Lee’s foray into AI is adding pressure on the network infrastructure. 

“So, we are now focusing on enhancing the AI capability and automating in-house operations to provide a much better customer experience to our users,” he added. 

Intelligence is becoming a deal-breaker 

When it came to the future of networking, one key ask by all participants was better intelligence. With a dynamic marketplace, new regulations (especially on cross-border communications), and the need to scale quickly, networks have to be smart — it is no longer an option. 

This makes the first two letters of SD-WAN (standing for software-defined) more compelling for current infrastructure leaders, said Cliff Yip, business director and emerging product sales specialist for Greater China at VMware. 

SD-WAN is designed to make real-time routing decisions on the fly. This, argued Yip, optimises performance by allowing companies to select from various network links and routing paths. It also gives them the flexibility to manage cross-border networking and meeting fast-evolving regulations and legislations — a key concern for Savage Liu, the information technology manager at Isobar Hong Kong. 

“I think this is not a new issue but is getting more critical. So, we select to work with partners like Telstra to make sure that you can select the right network service provider on both sides,” said Yip. He also added that cross-border networking will only get more complex trade tensions and new data regulations. 

Closing the hybrid networking gap 

Another reason why network intelligence matters is legacy infrastructure. “It is a problem because the legacy network environments are limited in terms of network utilisation or prioritisation of the services,” explained Dennis Lee, head of IT risk and control at Nomura.  

SD-WAN’s ability to offer transparency and intelligent control will play a substantial role in streamlining hybrid network connectivity. Telstra’s Leong pointed to its support for private and in-region peering as a critical advantage. 

In his presentation, Leong noted that SD-WAN overlay capabilities determine the optimal paths by matching the application’s attributes with the network (e.g., latency and jitter). But it’s the carrier underlays that will provide the additional tools to manage the telecom infrastructure of owned and third-party networks. 

The whitepaper theorised that you can also extend SD-WANs to offer SLAs over the public Internet, including third-party ISPs — an attractive proposition for Edmund Lai, deputy general manager and deputy head of consumer banking division at China Construction Bank (Asia), and Ronald Wong, vice president and team leader of network infrastructure at Chong Hing Bank.  

For Doug Naprta, the regional head of business development and technology sales for North Asia at Telstra, it comes down to user experience. “SD-WAN becomes paramount to maintaining this user experience within the office and when working from home or remotely. With the right controls, you will be able to bridge the gap in user experience and maintain it wherever the user is,” he added. 

Recalibrating networking for a new future 

Leong noted that networks will play a more decisive role as companies adopt cloud and SaaS applications for their mission-critical work while supporting hybrid workforces. 

The whitepaper research already showed that at least half of large, multi-site enterprises have already deployed SD-WAN and because of these requirements. This figure will surpass 90% in two years, it predicted. 

Naprta noted that Telstra’s ability to offer a holistic approach to SD-WAN — combining SD-WAN's physical and virtual capabilities in a single platform — will be a distinct advantage. Such an approach can support multi-vendor environments, expand service domains, and deliver a consistent user experience. 

Telstra’s Naprta and Leong believed a holistic approach allows companies to create a carrier underlay strategy that drives interoperability between hardware and software vendor products. It can also extend visibility across the entire network, including third parties. 

“An intelligent, software-defined network becomes the foundation for enabling future capabilities like AI to drive more value to the business,” added VMware’s Yip. 

This article first appear at the CDO Trends Magazine on May 24, 2021.