AutoNation’s former network architecture was expensive and inflexible, prompting a switch to SD-WAN, says Network Services Manager Richard Castellanos.

Jun 03 2022

SD-WAN Is Now the Networking Solution of Choice for Businesses Large and Small

Software-defined wide area networks are quicker, simpler and more scalable than MPLS.

The largest automotive retailer in the U.S. had a problem. The IT network it was operating for its roughly 350 locations across 18 states was outdated and inflexible.

“We had routers at every store,” says Richard Castellanos, manager of network services for AutoNation. “For a lot of money, we didn’t get a lot of bandwidth, and the system didn’t lend itself to automation or scaling.” Enter software-defined wide area networking, which “promised to change all that,” he said.

After a careful search process and a proof-of-concept test of two finalists that he ran at several retail stores, Castellanos landed on CloudGenix from Palo Alto Networks as AutoNation’s SD-WAN solution.

With workforces more spread out and an increasing need for immediate and uninterrupted access to critical network resources, SD-WAN is becoming increasingly indispensable for businesses of all types, especially those managing large, complex networks.

Reece Hayden
SD-WAN is a critical piece within enterprise network transformation”

Reece Hayden Research Analyst for Digital Transformation and Enterprise Connectivity, ABI Research

“SD-WAN is a critical piece within enterprise network transformation,” says Reece Hayden, an analyst focusing on enterprise connectivity and digital transformation for ABI Research. “It creates clear business and operational value. I expect that within five years, 99 percent of enterprises across verticals will have deployed or be in the process of deploying an SD-WAN solution.”

That’s because SD-WAN allows companies to operate networks that skip physical data centers. Instead, users connect directly to the cloud, with better network security, faster data flows and less reliance on traditional multiprotocol label-switching (MPLS) technology, which has been the dominant transport protocol for the past two decades.

The benefits, says Hayden, include a reduction in management and network costs; operational improvements such as network reliability, control and visibility; and zero-touch provisioning. SD-WAN features and capabilities differ among vendors, making the right solution for each company a matter of finding the right fit for specific business needs.

RELATED: Learn the importance of securing your organization's software-defined deployments.

How to Reduce Network Complexity With SD-WAN

An important aspect of CloudGenix that sold Castellanos was the straightforward deployment, which is important for a network of AutoNation’s size.

“Our network is deceivingly complex, but we didn’t have to make any large-scale changes to our topology,” he says. “We dropped in the equipment, turned it on and tweaked it. It could handle everything we were throwing at it.”

AutoNation’s networking team deployed the SD-WAN solution to approximately 20 sites per week, completing 100 sites in 2020 and the remaining 200-plus sites in 2021.

CloudGenix also met important objectives of the network management team: visibility and the ability to make changes at scale. Now, they have single-pane management, and the network team can easily deploy an update to a single store or the entire company. The visibility tools enable the team to monitor critical architecture and see details of packets going out and coming in.

Richard Castellanos

Photography by Joh Ritchie.

Now, most of AutoNation’s cloud traffic runs through the SD-WAN, from general internet browsing to voice communications.

“Printing, Domain Name System, Voice over IP — all of it works reliably,” Castellanos says. “Since moving from MPLS, we’re saving close to $3 million a year.”

For other companies considering the switch to SD-WAN, Castellanos says that improved technology and the cost savings are worth it.

“In the past five years, the product has matured,” he says. “I would recommend 100 percent to move in the direction of SD-WAN. Take advantage of not having to pay for MPLS. The deployment is fast, and you’ll make your network team happy.”

EXPLORE: Read more about AutoNations' digital transformation journey.

Networking Choices to Help You Stay Ahead of the Curve

When Marc Ashworth, CISO of Missouri-based First Bank, and Andrew Miller, associate vice president and lead network analyst, started evaluating SD-WAN solutions for the family-owned bank with about 100 locations across six states, they were concerned about cost. However, the bank’s branches needed more bandwidth, and the price of gaining bandwidth through the existing MPLS-based network was even more expensive than converting to SD-WAN.

They tested several SD-WAN solutions in a lab setting and in real-world environments at branch locations, and eventually chose Aruba’s Silver Peak.

“We let it run for a week or two in the branch, and everything was fine,” says Ashworth. “The only thing the branch reported back was that the network was running so much faster.”

With a three-person team, First Bank was able to deploy their SD-WAN in just over six months, fast enough that they were ahead of their telecommunications providers in certain locations.

“After we purchased everything, it took a few months for our carriers to get broadband,” says Miller. “We still installed Silver Peak by putting in a temporary T1 to get the branches off MPLS. Then we switched them to broadband when it was available.”

READ MORE: Get to know the features offered by Aruba's Silver Peak platform.

Both Miller and Ashworth say the benefits are easy to see. After paying off their $2.5 million investment within 18 months, the savings continue to mount.

“We were probably spending $350,000 per month for MPLS,” says Ashworth. “Now, we’re spending $40,000 a month for broadband. At the same time, broadband has gotten better, with more flexibility and competition.”

Other advantages include increased security, better disaster recovery, firewall capabilities and additional controls for segmentation to monitor network traffic.

From an administrative perspective, Miller appreciates being able to make one change to a template to change rules over the entire system. In addition, monitoring has become much easier.

“I use it every day to troubleshoot,” he says. “I can see every computer in my network and all the flows.”

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Smaller Organizations Jump on the SD-WAN Wave

Joel Holt is the vice president of IT for the Chicago Architecture Center, a nonprofit cultural organization that provides boat, train and walking tours, exhibitions, programs and events. When Holt joined the CAC about a year ago, it already had an SD-WAN solution in place. However, he decided to switch to another vendor that better met the organization’s needs.

“When I came, the network was about 10 years old and needed a refresh,” he says.

Updating the SD-WAN was a natural part of the overall network upgrade process, and Holt chose products from UniFi. Although he could have stayed with the vendor that was already in place, UniFi offered a simpler deployment, allowing the organization to reduce the number of internet circuits it uses from three to one. The switch also gave the CAC better firewall and throughput capabilities, Holt says.

“It’s important for us to control the wireless traffic and the SSIDs,” says Holt. “And it’s successful because we’re more productive. We’ve gone from 1 gigabit of throughput to 3.5 gigabits.”

For the firewall, the CAC uses the UniFi Dream Machine, U6 enterprise access points, and UniFi switches.

Although the CAC has just one main office location in downtown Chicago, the organization has high-bandwidth needs in lecture halls, exhibition galleries and its gift shop. In addition, the CAC is looking at adding capabilities such as augmented and virtual reality to enhance the visitor experience. “UniFi is cloud-based, so I can log on to the web portal to manage the network, or I can use the app and manage the network in a basic capacity,” Holt says.

SD-WAN deployments in smaller organizations like the CAC are becoming more common, according to Hayden of ABI Research. “There are big players in the SD-WAN market, but there are many more solutions,” he says. “It’s important for smaller organizations to spend time to see what their requirements are and what solutions meet their needs.”

Getty Images/ JuSun, akinbostanci

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