One Box to Rule the Branch, Yet Again?

M. Fratto

M. Fratto

Summary Bullets:

  • As companies refresh branch IT products, it’s a good time to evaluate new architectures for a better fit.
  • Network function virtualization (NFV) was born in the service provider space, but the basic concept has legs in the enterprise.

Every five years or so, vendors old and new refocus product development on the branch in an effort both to add capabilities in remote offices and to reduce management overhead as well as the number of trips IT has to make to locations for moves, adds, and changes. There’s always been tension between adding even more appliances to a branch office and consolidating down to fewer multi-function appliances. Having multiple single-function appliances improves performance and increases versatility because functions can be swapped out by replacing hardware, but at the expense of increased management overhead and cost; while utilizing consolidated, multi-function devices promises lower costs, consolidated management and simpler networks at the cost of less versatility in swapping out functional components and the possibility of a failure having a greater impact.

According to Kable’s 2016 global ICT Customer Insight survey of 2,607 IT buyers, 63.1% of respondents are prioritizing branch router purchases and 58.5% are prioritizing SD-WAN purchases in the next two years. As existing products reach the replacement point, it’s a good time for enterprises to evaluate what’s in the market. Most of the SD-WAN products can replace branch routers, firewalls, link load balancers, and traffic shapers with a single appliance that is operationally easier to use and promises better performance. Some SD-WAN vendors such as Riverbed and Viptela also offer 802.11 WiFi models, reducing the need for a router and an AP, while others such as VeloCloud can optimize traffic to and from cloud services like Amazon Web Services, Microsoft Office 365, and Salesforce.

There are other forms of consolidation afoot as well. Cisco’s Enterprise NFV offers fully functional OS, NFVIS, and virtual network functions, including WAN optimization with vWAAS; security with vASA; routing with ISRv; and vWLC, a wireless LAN controller that can be deployed on any x86 platform hardware (e.g., the Cisco Integrated Services Engine, the UCS-E, blade on ISR 4000). Most of the other SD-WAN products can be virtualized as well, and some vendors also provide a virtual environment on their hardware appliances to run virtualized functions. In most cases, the consolidation is the runtime environment, so you don’t have to deploy as much hardware, but management is not consolidated and achieving HA for multiple functions may be complicated. NFV-like approaches are promising, but I think the level of operational management consolidation should be an important consideration. The benefits of hardware consolidation can be quickly negated by a lack of improvement, or a worsening, in operational simplicity.

Finally, doing branch extension akin to virtual desktops from the likes of Citrix and VMware or distributed application deployments such as Riverbed’s Fusion, which puts the applications out at the branch and the storage in a central location and accelerates the application-to-storage access over the WAN, offers alternatives to drive down hardware in the branch while improving productivity and resiliency.

As you’re looking to refresh or replace branch IT products, it’s worth getting up to speed on the broader scope of architectures vendors are bringing to market.

About Mike Fratto
Mike is a senior analyst on the Business Technology and Software team covering the Enterprise Networking and Data Center Technology markets. He has extensive experience reviewing and writing about enterprise remote access, security, and network infrastructure products.

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