SD-WAN 101: Understanding the technology that makes your network more efficient

 In Hardware, Networking

There are a few clear signs that your school’s network deserves a failing grade. Do students in the computer lab struggle to do research because the administrative offices are hogging bandwidth? Is it difficult to scale and manage, especially across multiple buildings? If so, it might be time to rethink your networking.

For many, multiprotocol label switching (MPLS) is the gold standard for wide-area network (WAN) routing. But if you’re experiencing the challenges above, it might be time to look into SD-WAN.


SD-WAN uses software-defined networking to route traffic more efficiently across all devices and locations. SD-WAN employs centrally managed WAN devices in remote locations to establish logical connections with other edge devices across the physical WAN, and these connections create secure paths across multiple WAN connections and carriers. Its popularity is growing: IDC estimates SD-WAN will account for 10 percent of the WAN market by 2018, and will balloon to an approximately $6 billion annual market by 2020. Best of all, SD-WAN, like routers, is eligible for E-Rate funding.

We’ve put together a primer on SD-WAN and we’ll be hosting a related E-Rate webinar to explain how this approach can raise the grade of your network performance while saving your school district money.

Solving traditional network problems

Routers and MPLS networks are the hall monitors that determine how traffic moves on the network. Traditional routers, which can be purchased through E-Rate Category 2 funding, see most traffic as equal, which frustrates end users when critical applications experience slowdowns. SD-WAN, also eligible for E-Rate funding, solves the traffic jam by allowing applications on the network to prioritize bandwidth and determine how traffic moves.

For example, during exam week in school, students taking math exams are using a graphing application for complex equations. At the same time, front office administrators are conducting normal school business – emails and light web traffic. SD-WAN determines the graphing application is most important and prioritizes its traffic over the data loads from the front office. But when the school day is over, SD-WAN sees administrators are still working, and provides ample resources for their traffic.

This dynamic routing allows school IT administrators to build networks that are smart and more agile. SD-WAN can be deployed over broadband, Dedicated Internet Access (DIA), MPLS, or other types of connectivity service. It increases a network’s flexibility to respond to traffic loads and prioritizes critical applications to get the most out of its bandwidth.

SD-WAN provides IT with insights into network performance, and conflicts can be quickly addressed and remedied through an IT portal. In addition, encryption and segmentation are important benefits of SD-WANs; attacks on the network can be identified and quarantined quickly because IT has more visibility into network traffic.

Generating ROI and boosting efficiency

SD-WANs can create greater ROI for school districts because they provide better scale and management, even when they work in conjunction with MPLS networks. Because these architectures are an overlay technology, they can be built atop existing routers and servers. SD-WANs enable aggregating data and sending critical traffic over the best connection, and allow districts to use inexpensive secondary or tertiary connections such as DSL, Coax, or 4G wireless, to route lower-priority traffic.

And because SD-WANs are smart networks, districts can cut back on extra hardware and additional routing devices used to increase capacity. Because SD-WAN improves network performance without requiring additional hardware, this architecture can produce incredible ROI for large networks with significant bandwidth demands. In other words, a school district with a dozen schools can cut back on future hardware costs because the network performs more efficiently with its existing hardware.

SD-WAN isn’t an end, but a beginning

Does the era of SD-WAN signal the death of the traditional router and MPLS network? Hardly – this top-down approach to designing a network makes traditional routers perform smarter and more efficiently.

An SD-WAN architecture allows a school’s IT team to control network traffic from a single, centralized location, and that’s perfect for a district with schools scattered around a town or city. The architecture allows applications – and by extension, students and teachers – to dictate what traffic receives highest priority so critical teaching applications won’t be stuck in line behind other, less mission-critical network traffic. As a result, SD-WAN improves a network’s efficiency and bandwidth allocation while keeping long-term costs down.

SHI is holding a webinar on the capabilities of SD-WAN networks on Aug. 31 at 2 p.m. Register today, or contact your SHI Account Executive for more information about this technology.

Zach Renkert contributed to this post.

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