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Digital transformation and WAN: What does the future hold?

December 18, 2019 - 6 min read

It has been around for years and has done an admirable job of helping businesses communicate. But, does a long-standing piece of legacy technology still have a place in today’s ever-changing business landscape?

I’m talking, of course, about what could be described as the elder statesman of the technology world – the traditional wide area network. This critical communication tool has been in existence for almost 40 years, with the first public WAN being implemented back in 1982.

Yet, despite its advanced age, WAN remains an essential way for organizations to communicate internally and externally across different geographic locations. So, there will always be a requirement for some kind of WAN. However, the complex, and often expensive, nature of existing WAN technologies is causing many to have a long hard look at the viability of this technology as it is currently constructed. There are already some thought-provoking examples of where global technology leaders have asked themselves deep and soul-searching questions… “Do I really need a WAN? Isn’t there a better way?” Well, there just might be. 

Why WAN?

Before we get into that, let's think about why the WAN exists in the first place. In the simplest terms, the WAN is a means to connect business locations with a private and reliable network, allowing people and systems to access apps and data. Also, the WAN provides the gateway to enable remote offices and mobile users to securely connect to the internet.

While these long-standing, yet basic, requirements are still very relevant today, the parameters in which the IT world now operates have evolved. New dimensions have been cast - namely cloud, mobility, and anything and everything as a service. These new dimensions are all being driven and powered by one thing - the need for direct connectivity to the internet.

Let’s take a closer look at this.

Historically, businesses have kept their so-called crown jewels – their most important apps and most critical data – locked away in a private data center. However, there is a definite upward trend occurring where organizations are replacing these private apps with a SaaS solution. Where this is not feasible, many are migrating or even altogether rewriting their apps onto public infrastructure as a service (IaaS) and platform as a service (PaaS) environments. This has all been made possible by the remarkable growth and accelerated maturity of the cloud.

Let's take Siemens for example. This true heavyweight in global business has more than 350,000 employees in 192 countries, and it recognized the need to embrace digital business to continue innovating and growing. Its power generation business was shifting from a structured, centralized model to a decentralized and fluctuating model. It would also no longer handle maintenance at fixed intervals. Instead, this would occur in real time and online.

These were big shifts for a 170-year-old giant to make. And, executives at Siemens realized that IT was the catalyst for such radical change. In 2015, Siemens started a colossal undertaking to transform its business behind a vision that the internet will become the corporate network.

Initially, this may have been seen as a huge risk, particularly when framed by the possessive and controlling way in which IT had been run for years in most global organizations. But after logically assessing the facts, Siemens realized there were few cons. Better quality, greater agility, and faster performance would breed higher productivity, sharper competitiveness, more-efficient operations, and lower costs.

Today, Siemens is four years into its transformative voyage. It has already migrated more than 3,000 apps from its environment to the cloud and is accelerating through the 7,000 or so remaining apps. Siemens is not the only one in this enviable position. Several other large organizations, including GE and AutoNation, have not been afraid to make similar bold decisions.

The role of SD-WAN

For many forward-thinking organizations on the road to a digitally transformed future, SD-WAN is central to their plans. It’s proving to be a fitting component in this transitional phase between old and new IT worlds. SD-WAN technology is acting as a reliable and flexible signpost. In essence, it is a satellite navigation system directing traffic from remote office locations to the dwindling estate of privately hosted apps or the ever-growing catalog of tools and services available via the internet. It facilitates a uniformly positive experience for end users while reducing the complexity of network architectures.

SD-WAN is currently the poster child for digital transformation. It enables businesses to seize back control of their networking architecture and allows them to embrace current (often incorrectly referred to as legacy) and future states of application delivery. But, is SD-WAN the ultimate answer? Is it the final destination on the epic and somewhat treacherous digital transformation journey?

The mobile quandary

We have not yet touched upon one key dimension that even SD-WAN can’t help with today – mobility. Driven by the increasing number of millennials in the modern workplace, coupled with advances in cellular telephony, people are seeking a better work-life balance and the place of work is no longer restricted to the four beige walls of their suburban office cubical. Work is now home, the car, the local artisan coffee shop or even on the tube deep under the busy streets of London. This always-on culture has bred an expectation – no, actually, a right – to an optimized user experience from wherever you are. Therefore, the ability to be a truly mobile worker hinges upon direct connectivity to the cloud from any device on any network. Sure, mobility has long been possible via the internet with the use of backhaul-inducing VPN technology, but this has often resulted in the equivalent of watching an old black-and-white movie on your new Ultra HD television.

The challenge is that mobility is already here. Therefore, businesses that have been brave enough to fully embrace transformation are having to grapple with this in conjunction with the re-organization of their application catalog.

Completing the puzzle

The digital transformation jigsaw puzzle is well underway for many. But, what will that puzzle look like in a few years?

The big trailblazers of transformation are planning to finally shake off the shackles of their private app portfolio in the next decade or so, allowing them to fully embrace the freedom, agility, and simplicity provided by the direct-to-cloud approach.

Serbian poet Dejan Stojanovic once said, “The most complicated skill is to be simple.” He was right. And, for some in the digital transformation realm, that means a world where the corporate network is no more, where the internet becomes the new corporate network. Ultimately, the network will become a simple means of generic access. Security and trust will become network-agnostic and the focus of authentication will be centered around the crown jewels themselves and the person wishing to view them, not the corridors that lead to them.

There are still many challenges that need to be tackled to make this a reality. Focused, passionate and talented personnel are needed to drive the project forward. Security, trust and compliance must dovetail every decision. Relationships with the partner ecosystem have to be stronger than ever before. But there are solutions to these challenges.

Sure, some stalwarts will argue that a few aspects of a traditional infrastructure, such as a private WAN, will always have its place alongside the cloud. But will the vast majority of enterprises agree with that assessment? When these organizations complete their digital transformation, what will happen to the WAN as we know it today? What will it look like?

Only after the dust settles and organizations have gone through their digital transformation will we discover the definitive answer.

Marc Davis is a sales engineer at Zscaler.

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