Jun 20 2024

Software-Defined Networking is the Crucial Architecture Behind Faster, Safer Wi-Fi 6

Modern businesses improve speed, flexibility and security with state-of-the-art network tech.

As a law firm with more than 40 offices across the United States and Mexico, Fisher Phillips understands the need for dependable networking technology. For its attorneys to do just about anything — whether it’s sharing a document with staff down the hall or holding a videoconference with a distant partner — they need a network that’s consistently up and running, no matter where they happen to be.

“From a business perspective, connectivity is critical,” says CIO Michael Steele. The firm’s attorneys, who are experts in labor and employment law, rely on cloud services for everything from research to client communications, he explains. “They need to know that everything’s going to work, that the network is going to be stable and secure.”

With that in mind, Fisher Phillips transitioned to a modern networking strategy under Steele’s direction. His team had previously leaned on a managed WAN that used multiprotocol label-switching (MPLS) circuits to connect cloud applications with edge devices at the firm’s many offices. The problem was that those connections were low-bandwidth, and that meant they were often unreliable.

“We had a lot of network outages at the time, so we started to look for ways to simplify things,” Steele says. His team approached Silver Peak, now part of HPE Aruba, and ultimately decided to implement the company’s software-defined WAN platform, EdgeConnect.

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SD-WAN Improves Network Security and Control

A wide-area network in which networking hardware is decoupled from the physical control layer, SD-WAN differs from traditional WAN in that it allows organizations to use broadband for connectivity. The technology makes a lot of sense for companies of all types, but especially for highly distributed businesses, says Brandon Butler, a research manager with IDC who focuses on enterprise networking technologies.

“If you’re a retail company with a headquarters and lots of stores, or a bank with branches in multiple states, it allows you to centralize network management while optimizing your WAN for cloud-based applications,” Butler says.

EdgeConnect allowed Fisher Phillips to do away with its old routers and “gave us what we needed to eliminate our MPLS connections,” Steele says.

UP NEXT: How can business optimize their networks for modern work today?

SD-WAN Makes Network Management Simple

The new setup, he explains, pairs WAN hardware with local fiber connections. That’s led to improvements in security, for example, because the firm is no longer relying on an outside contractor for firewall services across the organization. “Now we have trusted services in every office, and we have a resilient mesh network across the organization because of the secure tunneling we can do with our SD-WAN appliances.”

The new technology has also improved overall network control for the Fisher Phillips IT team. Using a tool called Aruba Orchestrator, the team can visualize the network on a single pane of glass, push out updates instantly as they’re needed and trouble-shoot ­brewing problems before they affect the firm.

Steele has eyes on other networking initiatives as well. The firm is about to deploy new access points and switches from Juniper Networks to take advantage of Wi-Fi 6E, for instance, and he’s considering ways to leverage artificial intelligence for wireless network management.

Moving forward, he says, networking at Fisher Phillips will inevitably evolve as new technologies become available. “That’s part of providing the service level our clients expect, adapting and staying on top of what’s next.”

Michael Steele, CIO, Fisher Phillips


SD-WAN Is More Reliable Than Alternatives

Another business leader with his mind on modernization is Aaron Sturniolo, director of IT at RRMM Architects. Headquartered in Chesapeake, Va., the firm employs about 150 people in five offices in Virginia and Maryland.

During the pandemic, RRMM had to deal with many of the same challenges that businesses everywhere were facing. Overnight, Sturniolo, the sole IT employee, had to make sure that everyone stayed connected through a new fleet of cloud-based applications while they worked remotely.

He was grateful for his earlier decision to deploy Cisco Meraki’s MX security and SD-WAN appliances. “With SD-WAN, I had a centralized point of management, one dashboard for tracking all of our devices,” Sturniolo says.

The deployment included Meraki MR access points and MS switches, plus a Cisco tool called Auto VPN that allowed him to easily create VPN tunnels between each office’s Meraki MX appliances. Together, the technologies made it easy for Sturniolo to automatically manage bandwidth, block potential cyberthreats and filter out nonbusiness traffic.


The reduction in USAA’s time to production for quantitative models and analytics reports since adopting its Tableau analytics solution

Source: USAA

“If you want to block or unblock something,” he says, describing the platform’s content-filtering functionality, “you can set it up and then propagate your changes to make sure it’s consistent across the organization.”

Not long ago, Sturniolo adds, he was starting to see connectivity issues with new laptops that the company had purchased for employees. It turned out that the problem wasn’t SD-WAN but the Wi-Fi 6 adapters that came preloaded with the computers.

Sturniolo went to Meraki for a solution and soon found himself modernizing his network yet again. The answer was simple: The company needed access points (APs) optimized for Wi-Fi 6.

“We got those installed, and we were good to go,” he says. “Today, everything works like a champ.”

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Stabler Connections

It isn’t just innovative international law firms that are embarking on network modernization projects. At Murdoch’s Ranch and Home Supply in Montana, for example, CIO Robert Meshew reports that the retailer has adopted a Cisco Meraki SD-WAN solution to better connect its 40-plus stores. And Visit Big Bear, a destination marketing organization for the city of Big Bear Lake in Southern California, recently turned to hardware from Juniper to bolster its wired and wireless networks.

The impetus for Visit Big Bear’s recent network reinvention was a need for reliable connectivity in a place that hosts up to 150,000 visitors annually. “We’re not your average small business, where we’re just going to use a Wi-Fi router,” says Matt McCabe, who oversees IT for the organization. “Having a really strong network is important for us, and that’s both for the free public Wi-Fi we provide and for the network we use for business operations.”

Visit Big Bear turned to Juniper’s Sky Enterprise with EX Series switches and SRX300 firewalls. The platform provides visibility into those devices and wireless APs, while Juniper’s SRX Series Services Gateways provide automated monitoring.

Similar to Fisher Phillips, Visit Big Bear is now on the path to Wi-Fi 6 adoption, McCabe says. The organization may need to refresh some of its technology to ensure compatibility with the new standard, but the way he sees it, any investment made will be worth it.

“Especially when it comes to security, we want to make sure we’re using the latest procedures and protocols to protect both our staff and our visitors,” he says. “You can do that in any number of ways, but using Wi-Fi 6 is one logical step.”

Two Networking Trends to Watch

According to IDC research manager Brandon Butler, cybersecurity is the one area where software-defined WAN technology seems to be evolving the fastest.

“A really important part of the SD-WAN market is secure access service edge, or SASE,” says Butler, explaining that SASE technologies combine SD-WAN with cloud-based security capabilities. “It’s a powerful solution for organizations looking to integrate security into their WAN.”

Also gaining ground in the SD-WAN arena — and in local area networking with Wi-Fi, as well — is the use of artificial intelligence and machine learning in network management. “It’s all about analyzing what’s happening on your network, so that if and when there’s a problem, you can pinpoint exactly where it is and automatically fix it before it impacts users,” Butler says.

Looking ahead, Butler says that he expects to see “all vendors” in the SD-WAN space focusing on the development of new AI capabilities to further enhance network management. “I think we can count on that being a significant theme in the coming years,” he says.

Ben Rollins

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