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Enamored by the Cloud, Bogged Down by the Details: Organizing an SD-WAN Migration

WAN Summit

By Elizabeth ThorneFeb 8, 2019

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A company’s information technology staff needs technology skills, sure. But don't underestimate the importance of organizational prowess.

Nowhere is this more apparent than when a company makes the decision to migrate to software defined wide area networking (SD-WAN). A presentation from GE Digital Principal Architect Gary Holland and Microland Chief Technology Officer Bob Wysocki at WAN Summit London illustrated just this.

GE Digital, a subsidiary of General Electric, provides software and advisory services involving operational technology and infrastructure. Microland is the IT services company that worked with GE Digital on their SD-WAN migration.

Here's what happened when these two entities teamed up.

The Legacy

Wysocki painted a picture for the audience.

In his experience, Wysocki has found that companies often turn to SD-WAN after becoming enamored by the cloud. And their ambitions blossom. Management might even make big statements, like “Let’s move 100 applications by the end of this month.”

After this initial burst of enthusiasm, however, managers become aware of subsequent network requirements. They find that using the cloud will increase network traffic and spur the need for anywhere-to-anywhere connectivity.

While overlay solutions may have worked in the past, the shift to the cloud often requires bigger changes, as General Electric’s experience illustrates. As Holland explained, GE’s traditional approach to network complexity was to build another network over the top. However, “complexity comes with a cost.”

Legacy routing and security policies were “brittle” and didn’t mesh well with cloud services designed around flexibility.

“You continue fighting with yourself,” Holland observed. “As we moved to things like SaaS, for example, we found that applications started to break.”

The problem was that SaaS traffic, like other network traffic, was routed through Amsterdam for cloud proxy purposes before going to the cloud. And for traffic originating in locations like Africa and Australia, that approach added too much latency. 

The problem was that SaaS traffic, like other network traffic, was routed through Amsterdam for cloud proxy purposes before going to the cloud. And for traffic originating in locations like Africa and Australia, that approach added too much latency. Users in those locations complained of screens freezing during video sessions with their unified communications-as-a-service tool, for example.

They got to the point where they didn’t trust the network.

“We had to change our mindset and our approach,” said Holland.

Am I Going to Proxy it? Is it Going to Break?

As GE Digital set out to explore the possibility of using SD-WAN to enhance cloud performance, it was critical to be open to new ways of thinking. As Holland put it, it was key to “know your network, know the business that you’re in, and know the applications that your business needs to survive on.”

Holland and his team did a “detailed and deep dive with vendors,” asking questions about where their clouds were hosted, whether traffic was TCP or UDP, and what would happen if traffic to the cloud went via the internet.

“Is that going to work, am I going to proxy it, is it going to break?” pondered Holland.

“Why are we taking traffic from Nairobi to London just to go through a firewall?”

In analyzing the situation, the duo underscored that it is important to recognize that “nothing is sacred—and not just the network.” IT architects also looked at security practices, asking questions like “Why is that firewall there?” and “Why are we taking traffic from Nairobi to London just to go through a firewall?”

As Holland recalled, “the design that we came up with [involved taking] traffic to the internet that we could trust,” an example being unified communications traffic. “That experience is best done unconstrained,” he said.

This approach immediately reduced backbone costs; because the company was able to buy internet connectivity for less money than MPLS connectivity, network costs went down and bandwidth went up.

Critically, users were happier with their experience using cloud applications. “We have no jittery video, no jittery voice,” said Holland. The company now has happy users, and as a result, happy management. The SD-WAN migration has also helped the IT team, as routing changes can now be made centrally, eliminating the need to individually change thousands of routers across the network.

Challenges

Some of the biggest challenges GE Digital faced in devising its new network design were cultural. The team immediately met resistance from operations and security teams.

When it came time to begin implementing SD-WAN, no site wanted to go first. But as initial users began to see the benefits of the new approach, “now it’s not a case of ‘who’s going to go next?’ but ‘why am I not next?’”

“As soon as we said ‘we’re going to take sites directly to the internet,’ they freaked out,” Holland said.

Not surprisingly, when it came time to begin implementing SD-WAN, no site wanted to go first. But as initial users began to see the benefits of the new approach, “now it’s not a case of ‘who’s going to go next?’ but ‘why am I not next?’”

Another important challenge that the design team faced was wide variation from one site to another. Over the years, GE had made many acquisitions and a result had a wide mix of network designs and technologies.

The move to SD-WAN gave the team the opportunity to minimize this variation by creating and following templates for different types of locations. That approach has helped the company accelerate the pace of its SD-WAN migration.

The team now converts 45 locations per month.

Lessons Learned

Holland cited three key lessons learned from GE Digital’s SD-WAN migration.

  1. Know your network. Know your applications and what your business needs are.
  2. Address existing variation from one location to another. Failing to do so could jeopardize project success.
  3. Get everyone on board. “Everybody’s got to be on the same page and share the same vision,” said Holland.

 

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