Software defined wide area networking should be a core ingredient of public sector digital transformation, explains Paul Griffiths, technical director of advanced technology at Riverbed Technology
Public sector communications networks are taking on new dimensions. Not only are wide area networks (WANs) becoming the norm, but they are extending themselves yet further geographically, relying on different types of connections, and supporting the use of increasingly sophisticated business applications.
It comes partly from technology, notably the growing use of mobile devices and cloud services; but also from the increasing demands for collaboration between organisations, from devolution and the growing attention to ‘smart places’. All requiring the inter-connection of a plethora of devices and management systems.
Heavy volumes of mission-critical data have to move quickly and reliably around broad and complex networks, placing increasing strain on the organisation's management teams. This is where software defined wide area networking (SD WAN) provides a model that can meet the challenge and lighten the load.
It builds on the development of software defined networks (SDNs), which separate the management of the infrastructure into three levels:
- The management plane for policy configurations for network traffic.
- The control plane where policies are translated to configuration settings.
- The data plane, where the configurations are applied to individual components.
This enables administrators to remotely adjust all the elements of a network - switches, routers, firewalls, wireless access points and network paths - setting rules for the points to respond to different types and sizes of data packets. This effectively automates the management of day-to-day operations, taking the strain off local IT teams and giving the central administrators closer control of the whole network.
But the demands are becoming more complex as the public sector depends more on mobile devices and cloud services and use of other bodies’ infrastructure. Networks are effectively taking on a hybrid quality with an ever changing mix of different connections, involving traditional MPLS circuits, internet connectivity, local wireless and public mobile networks. They can also extend from local or regional areas to operate nationwide.
This is where SD WAN comes in. It provides network administrators with an interface through a control console that can determine priorities for different types of data – depending on their importance and urgency – and the appropriate security settings.
The interface translates the business policy in configuring the routers, switches, firewalls and network paths to define the quality of service for different applications. This could be run from the organisation's own data centre or from a cloud based controller, the crucial point being that the interface enables definition of policies for various applications.
It can also set path selection capabilities, so the network will know which way to route data through MPLS or internet connections, and when they can go through either.
This enables organisations to respond to surges in demand for bandwidth from different components, and set policies that reflect their priorities in users getting access to the various business applications.
As a practical example, an ERP application could be made visible for particular users with a specified degree of performance and availability. The central interface can pick up on a log-in, identify the IP address from which it came, and link to any directory to recognise users and ensure that sufficient bandwidth is available at that point on the network.
In effect, it takes away much the complexity in managing the configuration of WAN components, and centralises the control to ensure it aligns with the organisation's priorities.
All this can produce a range of operational benefits:
- Reduced costs in the staff time needed to configure the hardware in a WAN.
- Increased productivity for other employees by ensuring data goes through applications quickly.
- The ability to automate policies for the priority of business critical applications.
- The ability to apply security policies to data.
- Flexibility in choosing the appropriate network routes for applications and responding to changes in demand for bandwidth.
- Better visibility on the performance of applications, network service for individual users, how it aligns with the organisation’s business priorities, and the overall efficiency of the WAN.
For public sector organisations, this can also play a major role in supporting their digital transformations. Their WANs now comprise a shifting combination of MPLS, internet, landline, Wi-Fi and mobile connections; but SD WAN places control in the hands of a central team who can ensure that different types of data are given the appropriate priority, and that it all aligns with the business policies.
It can also provide the appropriate network support for the increasing use of mobile devices and cloud services, and support collaboration between organisations. This will be particularly important in the integration of health and social care, ensuring that professionals in both sectors receive secure, high performance access to information systems.
In turn, all of this contributes to delivering high quality and reliable services in line with public expectations.
It amounts to a mission-critical proposition for public services, providing a strong but flexible backbone for their implementation of new technologies. An SD WAN should be a core ingredient of an organisation's digital transformation.
To learn more download the Riverbed white paper 'SD WAN: mission-critical for the public sector' here: