Why SD-WAN is the future of government networks

jamesteohart/getty images

COMMENTARY | The revolution in IT workloads requires flexible, adaptable networking solutions.

There are two things I’ve had to learn to accept over the last few years. First, is that Tom Brady is the greatest quarterback of all time and second, that MPLS is no longer the best option for federal wide-area networks. The first one was hard for me because I’m a long time Jets fan. The second is significantly more profound as it marks the end of an era. 

Back in 1999 I recall high-fiving my colleagues at AT&T as they rolled out multiprotocol label switching. The technology was the answer to all our challenges, offering layer 2 scalability and performance with layer 3 flexibility.  We viewed it as secure because the packets did not flow on the internet, but instead remained safe within a walled garden. It also enabled the IP telephony evolution because of its inherent any-to-any connectivity.  This was truly the best of all worlds.  For 15 years following that day I presented the benefits of MPLS to hundreds of customers and helped them to migrate from legacy networks. I truly thought we would never see MPLS replaced. 

A lot has changed since 1999.  First, we saw the proliferation of smartphones and with that the desire to reach corporate data from these internet-connected devices. Then we saw an explosion of cloud services in the enterprise space.  These clouds are shared internet-connected applications and services that promised better economies for most IT workloads. In the late 2010s, the notion of zero trust emerged, which shattered our belief that everything in the garden was secure.  With these changes, it was time for a new network technology to emerge and along came SD-WAN.  

Software defined wide area networking of SD-WAN offers a revolutionary architecture that provides secure, powerful connectivity to multiple or many sites or branches, using lower cost bandwidth options such as dedicated internet or broadband. It uses a centralized control plane to route traffic, allowing administrators to write rules and policies and deploy them across the entire network at once.  Control is detached from the underlying network, simplifying network management and improving cost, while maintaining high levels of performance.  It also makes it easy to take any access technology and incorporate it into the network. For example, SD-WAN allows endpoints served by Starlink to be easily and securely integrated into an enterprise WAN. SD-WAN also does a great job load balancing across all available access circuits serving a given location. 

The good news is that federal agencies can replace their expensive MPLS WAN environment with multiple broadband carriers per location and let the SD-WAN magic boxes balance traffic across the multiple low-cost paths.

More good news: this is not an experiment. It’s a tried-and-true leapfrog in network innovation that has already been proven in the commercial world.  

And even more good news.  If an agency is still feeling reluctant, they can ease into SD-WAN by augmenting their MPLS networks with low-cost internet connection. SD-WAN will make it all work seamlessly together. 

For example,  a major equipment rental company used SD-WAN to help the state of Florida recover from Hurricane Ian.  The company serves construction and industrial customers, utilities, municipalities, homeowners and others, delivering industrial equipment such as trucks, helicopters, forklifts, earth movers, homeowner equipment – all things critical to helping communities survive and recover from disasters – as long as its own network stayed up.  

In 2022, Hurricane Ian devastated South Florida, leaving 2 million people without power and causing an estimated $120 billion in damage across the Southeast. In the past, a storm of this magnitude would wreak havoc on commercial networks in the affected locations. This would not only disrupt their operations in the impacted area but would also create a ripple effect that drained resources and impacted services on a much wider scale.  

Despite the fury and havoc Ian wrought, the company’s SD-WAN network never failed. This was the first time in their history that 100% of their locations remained operational as soon as power was restored. The built-in redundancy gained proved invaluable to their ability to respond quickly to support local recovery efforts, dispatching life-saving equipment where and when it was needed across the region, as well as restoring business operations at their own locations. Needless to say, this essential service company made SD-WAN their standard for network connectivity across all of their 1300 locations across North America, Europe and Asia-Pacific.

While their initial focus was on replacing an expensive MPLS network with greater bandwidth at lower costs, the remarkable resilience of SD-WAN became the greatest benefit. From every metric perspective – performance, cost, resilience – SD-WAN has proven its merit as the network solution of the future.

Now I just need Patrick Mahomes to win a few more super bowls so I can at least be right about Tom Brady not being the greatest ever.