Modern communication service providers (CSPs) offer all sorts of value-added services to enterprises, but WAN connectivity continues to be the foundation of the portfolio. No matter what else changes, enterprises still need reliable, high-performing connectivity for business locations and applications. And MPLS-based transport continues to make up the bulk of that business—at least, until now.
Today, the convergence of two major technology trends, 5G and SD-WAN, is poised to unlock new capabilities and architectures that could upend the status quo. By combining SD-WAN intelligence with the reach and flexibility of 5G, CSPs can tap into new connectivity models across enterprise, Internet of Things (IoT), and even residential markets. As they do, they can enable digital use cases that were previously impossible—and bring significant new value to their customers.
MPLS remains the bedrock of enterprise WAN connectivity, and that’s likely to remain so for the foreseeable future. And yet, the growth of SD-WAN has broadened the possibilities for how businesses can architect their networks.
SD-WAN adds a layer of software-defined intelligence to make better use of a site’s available network resources and ensure the best possible application experience for users. Businesses can use multiple, hybrid connections at their locations, with the SD-WAN selecting the optimal path for each application and traffic type. More recently, many SD-WAN solutions have expanded to add cloud-based security and zero trust network access, creating a new, more comprehensive category of network solutions called secure access service edge (SASE).
These innovations give enterprises powerful new tools to make WAN connectivity smarter, more flexible, and more secure. For CSPs, however, SD-WAN has been something of a mixed bag. SD-WAN doesn’t replace MPLS, but it has largely capped its growth. Now though, 5G is poised to change that equation. With its ability to bring high-performing network services to places wired infrastructure can’t reach, 5G can offer a viable alternative to traditional WAN connectivity. By combining 5G with SD-WAN, CSPs can offer unprecedented flexibility to their customers and support a wide range of new use cases.
Hybrid 5G Connectivity to Reduce Reliance on Traditional Transport
Enterprises do use 4G wireless for WAN connectivity today, but applications tend to be limited—for example, connecting temporary sites or remote point-of-sale terminals with minimal bandwidth requirements. Most businesses haven’t considered 4G a viable alternative for a site’s primary network connection.
Now, the higher performance of 5G, combined with the dynamic routing intelligence of SD-WAN, offer a compelling option to supplement and in some cases even replace traditional connectivity. Using traffic shaping and new policies at the edge, CSPs can help enterprises extend mobile broadband to more scenarios and reduce their reliance on traditional transport media.
Intelligent Private 5G Networks
CSPs are already looking to private 5G networks as an exciting, potentially lucrative new offering for enterprise customers. By combining private 5G networks with SD-WAN and SASE, they can support a variety of new use cases, including:
- Pre-filtering local traffic: Enterprises can route more and more on-premises traffic to local destinations through private infrastructure before it reaches the SD-WAN edge element—triggering new datasets, configurations, and traffic profiles.
- Optimizing IoT traffic: One of the core use cases for 5G is massive IoT connectivity—which inevitably brings exponential increases in the traffic flowing from millions of connected devices to the outside world. SD-WAN can play a critical role in performing traffic analysis and route selection for this IoT traffic.
- Enhancing security: Whether for IoT or other use cases, private 5G networks integrated with SD-WAN/SASE solutions can efficiently employ services like data encryption and tunneling, adding an extra layer of security to business traffic.
- Optimizing SD-WAN deployments with MEC: CSPs can simplify edge connectivity for their customers by running the SD-WAN stack from multi-access edge compute (MEC) nodes, instead of dedicated uCPE devices.
Simplified Deployments with Multi-Access Edge Computing
The rise of MEC, which is occurring side-by-side with the evolution of 5G, could fundamentally change SD-WAN architectures. As noted, in many cases enterprises will have an opportunity to deploy SD-WAN on MEC nodes just outside the premises, instead of having to use dedicated uCPEs. This makes deployments simpler for everyone—CSPs, SD-WAN providers, and enterprise customers.
At the same time, when SD-WAN lives at the edge on a microservices-based MEC architecture, it benefits from all the advantages of modern cloud-native software. Those include improved scalability and flexibility, simpler and more frequent updates and upgrades, and the ability to closely align service distribution with unique service qualities and customer needs.
Improved 5G Quality
5G brings several new innovations to the radio access network (RAN) user plane, one of the most important being the introduction of service data adaptation protocol (SDAP). With this new layer of SDAP intelligence, CSPs can use quality-of-service (QoS) flow identifiers at both the user endpoint and radio site to track and improve quality. Combined with SD-WAN traffic shaping, the convergence of these two worlds gives CSPs new tools to optimize QoS for sessions in progress.
New Possibilities for Residential and Consumer Mobile Services
Even outside the enterprise segment, CSPs are eying 5G fixed wireless access (FWA) as a viable new option for residential broadband connectivity—one that can be deployed at a far lower cost than traditional last-mile infrastructure. It’s easy to imagine future scenarios where residential users have multiple connections to the home (5G FWA, cable or DSL connectivity, Wi-Fi), and use consumption-based pricing. Here, SD-WAN could play a key role in ensuring that users have the highest possible quality, at the lowest cost, for all their sessions and devices.
It’s even possible to imagine SD-WAN eventually living on consumer handsets. There, a mobile user’s SD-WAN service could select from among multiple carriers and connectivity options to provide the best connection for that specific time, location, and application.
A Winning Combination
5G can bring major new benefits to enterprises, including enhanced network reach, enhanced resource utilization, improved network visibility and intelligence, and more. But to make the best use of 5G services, enterprises would benefit from an extra layer of intelligence between their connected sites and devices, and the outside world. Here, SD-WAN is a perfect fit.
By combining SD-WAN with 5G, CSPs can open a world of new possibilities for their enterprise customers, business partners, and end-users. Best of all, these possibilities have none of the tradeoffs inherent in positioning SD-WAN versus MPLS. The combination of 5G and SD-WAN creates a positive feedback loop, where advances in one fuel growth in the other. Which means CSPs can continually expand their portfolio of enterprise offerings, while consistently deliver new value to customers.