Any business with multiple branches — a restaurant chain, say, or a clothing retailer — is ultimately going to run a fairly lean IT operation, and likely will have more locations than IT staff, according to Daghan Altas, director of product management at Cisco Meraki. In that environment, where store managers serve as ad-hoc network administrators, how can businesses ensure that they deliver a strong wireless network experience? SD-WAN can help.
SD-WAN decouples the network and the control plane. As Altas noted during a session at CDW’s “Transforming the Customer Experience with Digital Modernization” summit in New Orleans, SD-WAN boils down to the “idea of using two circuits concurrently in a smart way,” meaning that a router, firewall, or another SD-WAN device “can essentially choose the best path for the best application.”
For example, voice calls and credit card transactions can go over multiprotocol label-switching while YouTube uses the broadband connection, he said. SD-WAN lets companies do that automatically, he said, “so that the IT people don’t even have to know it. They can set it and forget it.”
SD-WAN can deliver greater reliability, lower costs and more bandwidth — but only two of those three results at once, Altas noted. Businesses are starting to see the benefits of the technology, and the demand for SD-WAN is growing rapidly, with IDC forecasting that the SD-WAN market will grow to $6 billion by 2020. “It’s a transformational technology,” Altas said.
The Benefits of SD-WAN
With SD-WAN, businesses can set up wireless networks at branch locations that do not rely on a single connection. Companies can have two; Altas noted that it’s like having both the Google Maps and Waze apps on a smartphone. For any given application on the network, SD-WAN lets businesses ask, what is the fastest way to get from point A to point B?
“If you’re not looking into SD-WAN, if you have lots of locations, you should,” he said. “It will give you reliability, it will give you cost savings, and it will give you more bandwidth. You get two out of three.”
Businesses can get more reliability, lower costs or more bandwidth, so long as one of those three things is something the company is willing to give up, Altas explained. “If you put more circuits in, then obviously you are not going to get cost savings,” he said.
But by moving to a dual-broadband solution, for example, companies can save money and increase their network bandwidth, he added. However, the company is then taking a gamble on reliability by not having any MPLS solutions in the mix. “If I’m a retailer or hotel, I would take that risk,” he added. “But if I’m a bank, I might not.”
Improve the Customer Experience, and Bottom Line, with SD-WAN
Cisco Meraki’s cloud-based dashboard for its SD-WAN solution allows IT managers to look at the health of their networks and get heat maps for where and how much customers are using the network. “You can basically right-size your network based on Meraki using our dashboard,” Altas said. “But beyond that, you can actually get a lot of metrics” on where network traffic is spiking and where problem spots are emerging on the network.
Presence also matters a great deal in many business settings, whether it is a retailer or a doctor’s office with a waiting room where many people congregate, Altas said. “You’re going to want to have more bandwidth there, and you also want to understand why you’re having weird behaviors, like all of a sudden everybody is congregating in a different area.”
Users may adjust their behavior based on the network conditions they observe on their devices, he said, and may not go into certain parts of a location because they do not get reliable connectivity there.
“That’s the kind of thing you can track and remediate with the Meraki solution,” Altas said.
All of Meraki’s SD-WAN access points have Bluetooth Low Energy beacons built in, allowing the company to track users and give the company anonymized data on where they are, how many times they go on the network and the frequency of their connections. That kind of data can be helpful for loyalty programs, and also allows companies to deliver personalized, relevant special offers.
IT leaders buy these solutions, but marketing teams can realize the benefits, Altas said. The data can be used to create more engaging splash pages for customized websites or portals to draw more customers, or used in A-B testing for marketing promotions.
SD-WAN also enables businesses to deliver more personalized offers to customers. Ford uses Meraki in its car dealerships, Altas noted. The company has 3,400 dealerships nationwide. “Just imagine what insightful information it is to marketing to know that if you run a specific campaign, people walk into the actual dealership versus just staying in the parking lot,” he said. “That’s the kind of insight you can get from the network.”