Should Network Underlay Still Matter to Enterprises?

G. Barton
G. Barton

Summary Bullets:

  • Network underlay matters less than it used to, but should not be ignored by enterprises.
  • Overlay network technologies offer many benefits, but cannot cure all potential network problems.

SD-WAN has seen significant adoption in the enterprise network services market in very little time. The reason is that it allows enterprises to unify previously disparate networks while also delivering increased network management and control, security, and application performance benefits – even over internet connections. One of the ways this is accomplished is by deploying overlay networking technology which combines software control systems and network tunneling techniques that are agnostic of the physical infrastructure over which the data is carried. The reality is that these finer details matter a lot less to enterprises than factors such as reliability, performance, and service/application availability – and rightly so.

The need to integrate corporate systems, network services, applications, and cloud platforms has also meant that enterprises are increasingly looking towards systems integrators rather than network operators for their network solutions.

However, there are considerations enterprises should be aware of when it comes to the underlay of their network services. The first is that the quality of the underlay (both the access service and backbone network) will affect the performance of services running over the network. This factor does not point towards one particular kind of provider, but enterprises should consider their strategy for selecting connectivity providers – e.g., regional or local market best fit. Enterprises should also remember that wireless technologies such as 4G/5G and WiFi are underlay network dependent.

Local access and cloud access should also be considered as separate components – although there may well be overlap. Local access has become more challenging in the work-from-home (WFH) world. Enterprises which plan to adopt a continued, largescale WFH policy even after COVID-19 should consider working with a service provider to deliver a managed homeworker solution that includes benefits such as enhanced fix times, 4G/5G failover, and service prioritization.

Enterprises should also consider what their best route to hosted services (e.g., public cloud, collaboration platforms, SaaS, corporate applications) is. Routing through corporate networks risks potential bottlenecks, but offers security and compliance advantages over relying on public internet access paths. Utilizing service providers which offer their own public cloud/SaaS gateways may offer the best balance in terms of performance and security.

One trend that GlobalData has observed is for enterprises to deliberately select different providers for their overlay network and their underlay network to ensure that the overlay provider does not favor a specific network (e.g., their own). Enterprises should be aware that most network-owning telecoms service providers are increasingly network agnostic. They will provide overlay-only solutions or work with pre-selected or best-fit local network partners rather than favoring their own network infrastructure.

The choice of partner for network solutions is not easy, and no single factor dominates when it comes to selection criteria. Enterprises are well within their rights to demand that SLAs are geared towards real-world outcomes rather than network-centric metrics. However, while the underlay and overlay can be disaggregated when it comes to network partners, the underlay – and particularly access services – should be considered an important component when it comes to achieving overall network quality.

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