The typical enterprise uses over 280 cloud-based applications, and the average employee accesses more than eight, according to the Blissfully 2020 SaaS trends report. Both those numbers are going up, not down, over time.
Now let's think about those employees. Mobile working has been on the rise for years, and COVID-19 means that the numbers of employees working from home have skyrocketed.
What many network professionals are facing then is a perfect storm: a surge in non-office-based workers swamping the network and security systems as they log in remotely, only to head out again to the SaaS applications they need to access. Corporate networks become bottlenecks, central security stacks begin to creak, and employees can't access their SaaS applications reliably or with the performance they need to get their work done.
The performance issue is particularly relevant when it comes to real-time applications, which are voracious consumers of data and bandwidth – things like video conferencing applications. Which, as it happens, are just the sorts of applications that home workers need to use in earnest during events like the current pandemic. So even if the networking infrastructure could reasonably have been expected to handle a mass of people suddenly working from home and carrying out their normal activities, in many cases the addition of all this Zooming tipped things over the edge.
This has important implications for vendors of SD-WANs and their potential customers. SD-WAN technology was just beginning to take off: sales grew by 64% to over $1 billion in 2019, according to Dell'Oro Group. But for many organizations, the key problem now is providing home workers with fast and secure access to the applications they need, not boosting network performance between branch offices and the data center, a particular strength of SD-WAN. Many companies are discovering that there is plenty of life left in "traditional" WAN optimization technologies for that.
SASE sees growing interest
But the pandemic may well be beneficial for suppliers of Secure Access Service Edge (SASE) solutions. Gartner coined the term SASE last year, and the timing was impeccable. In January of this year the idea of the enterprise data center as the control center for user access and security was a viable one, even if it was complex, management-intensive, and prone to latency.
But now, it makes more sense for remote workers needing SaaS access to be directed to a cloud-based SASE solution - using zero trust network access - where security can be applied, and from where employees can access the SaaS applications they need. All without ever burdening the enterprise infrastructure and suffering the performance problems inherent in that approach.
SD-WAN will be back
Where does that leave SD-WAN technology? Given that the pandemic has shifted attention from site-to-site performance to more secure remote working, a good guess is that SD-WAN will be put on the back burner by many network professionals, for now at least. "There is no doubt that COVID-19 has created a major bump in the road," said Shin Umeda, a Dell'Oro Group vice president. But he adds that the fundamental drivers for SD-WAN adopted have not changed, so sooner or later it will be back on the agenda.
For the moment though, network architects will be looking at SD-WAN as part of a SASE offering the enterprise (or its employees) consume, rather than as something that they buy and operate themselves. But once work from home solutions are incorporated into SD-WAN at a reasonable cost, then it will likely be full steam ahead for the technology once more.