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Why SD-WANs are essential for success with IoT

Tue 18 Apr 2017
FYI, this story is more than a year old

Inevitably we will look back at 2017 as a tipping point for the Internet of Things (IoT).

Although IoT has been something that most business and IT leaders talk about, to date, deployments have been limited to key verticals that have been connecting things for years, although we called it machine-to-machine (M2M) before it became cool to say IoT.

My belief is that we can tell when a technology tipping point is happening when it no longer seems like a big deal.

Remember the early days of virtualisation? IT leaders had to explain why it was better to run workloads on VMs and had to prove it wouldn’t impair application performance. Today, no one thinks about these issues any more because that process is now the norm.

In the consumer world, people once said ‘ooh’ and ‘ahh’ when they saw an iPhone.  Now, no-one bats an eye, as the process is pervasive.

IoT is becoming part of life

Lately I’ve noticed that companies with infrastructure initiatives under way often never use the term IoT.

For instance the Bell Centre ice hockey stadium in Montreal, home of the NHL’s Canadiens, has literally connected everything including metal detectors, digital signs, point-of-sale systems and almost anything else you can think of. The reason? Connectivity improves the fan experience.

For example, connected metal detectors let the operation teams reboot and tune them centrally instead of having to delay thousands of fans while technicians are sent to address the issue at that location. When I interviewed the IT director at the rink, he never once uttered the words IoT. He just connected things because it was the right thing to do to ensure a great fan experience.

The rise of IoT also means that businesses need to rethink their WAN strategies. To some, however, the linkage between WAN architecture and IoT might not immediately seem obvious. So what is the link between IoT and the WAN?

The first and most obvious tie-in is that IoT endpoints are often in remote locations where it would be cost-prohibitive to deploy any combination of an onsite network engineer resource, let alone a Cisco router, MPLS circuits, and a traditional backup link.

An SD-WAN is designed to run over any type of network connectivity, including broadband, cellular, or even IoT-specific networks, such as Low Power Wide Area (LPWA) circuits. With an SD-WAN, devices or even a single endpoint can be connected, and then network services can be applied at a central regional hub. Also an SD-WAN makes it easy to build resiliency into the network without breaking the bank.

Another issue is that IoT deployments are typically three-tier (devices/sensors, gateways, cloud) in nature, meaning all these components must be connected continuously for the IoT service to function properly. Other than cost, the biggest issue with legacy WANs is complexity. 

But if you think WANs are complicated today all I can do is quote Bachman Turner Overdrive – ‘B-b-b-baby, you ain’t seen n-n-nothin’ yet’.  All these new connections are going to drive complexity through the roof, to the point where businesses will find IoT simply cannot be accomplished with a legacy WAN architecture.

Finally, when it comes to IoT, the elephant in the room is security, and here is where traditional WANs and IoT mix about as well as oil and water. There have been highly publicised breaches that have occurred because an IoT endpoint was compromised and created backdoor access to sensitive customer data, including credit card information.

Current WAN architectures have no way of easily creating secure zones where IoT endpoints can be isolated from other company endpoints. One of the low-hanging use cases of an SD-WAN is to use it to extend micro-segmentation to the WAN, enabling organisations to create overlay networks that can be as coarse or fine-grained as required.

For example, a hospital might want to create discrete segments for X-ray, MRI equipment, cardiac and patient records, while a factory might be satisfied with all IoT endpoints being placed in the same zone. An SD-WAN can easily accommodate a broad range of use cases.

The IoT era is here and I strongly encourage business and IT leaders to consider how the business will evolve once everything is connected. But before going down that path, take a step back and deploy an SD-WAN to simplify your WAN architecture, so your IoT initiatives can scale quickly and securely and in line with changing business requirements.

By Zeus Kerrala, founder and principal analyst with ZK Research, for Silver Peak

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