May 2, 2014

WAN: Wide Area Network or Wireless Access Network?

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WAN services are undergoing a fundamental change.  In particular, the Wide Area Network (WAN) has generally also been the "Wired Area Network."  And even though at some level the "wiring" has evolved from dedicated transmission services like T1/E1 and T3/E3 devices to MPLS and Internet-based services, the fundamental nature of these services using either real or virtual facilities for interconnection has followed the same fundamental model for decades.

Consider a two-by-two matrix of wired/wireless and WAN/LAN services.  Historically, of course, we were totally wired in both the WAN and the LAN.  However, in many, many cases various forms of Wi-Fi have supplanted wired LAN connections, providing "fast enough" transmission with the convenience of getting rid of the copper.  In fact, this has even extended in many cases to packetized voice also running over the wireless LAN.

But what about the WAN?

We recently published our 2014 Wide Area Networking State-of-the-Market Report by Jim Metzler, Webtorials Editorial/Analyst Division Co-Founder and Distinguished Research Fellow.  This report detailed a number of trends in the WAN, including factors that are driving various deployment issues, priorities, and plans for both implementing and growing services.

The bandwidth consumed in the WAN is certainly continuing to expand, with 30% of the respondents anticipating an increase of 1% to 20% in bandwidth and an additional 20% of the organizations seeing an increase of 21% to 40% in Internet bandwidth consumed. Growth for MPLS services is considerably less dramatic.

This bandwidth used in the wide area is certainly continuing to increase exponentially, with the exponent being a positive number and relatively large.  However, bandwidth consumption is somewhat less drastic than one might expect given the historically explosive growth.

The reason for this is fairly simple.  Remember the two-by-two matrix that I mentioned above?  The quadrant that we have not yet addressed is the "Wireless WAN."  And, by definition, the Wireless WAN in this case refers to data that is transported over cellular technologies such as 4G.  It does not refer to historical satellite and microwave "wireless" services that were used to emulate wired services.

Rather, this represents WAN traffic that, rather than traversing the tradition corporate WAN, is transported as part of mobility solutions employing pad/tablet and smartphone devices.  A significant number of the high-bandwidth applications, such as HD video conferencing, are never hitting the traditional WAN.  Mobile-enabled data applications on the corporate net are also being accessed increasingly via smartphones.  And even PC-based usage is on the rise for 4G services in many cases via "cellular modems" and "mobile hot spots."

WAN bandwidth and cloud-based services may be viewed from a couple of perspectives.  On the one-hand, these services are the major driver for increased Internet traffic, with 36% of the respondents noting this as the biggest driver in traffic and an additional 21% noting this as the second biggest driver.  

At the same time, these cloud-based applications and services noted here would apply only to traffic that is between the corporate net and the cloud.  If a mobile device is used to access these services via cellular connections, then it would technically be outside the scope of the traditional WAN.

The bottom line is that the WAN is once again in the midst of adding yet another layer of complexity, and many, if not most, organizations probably lack the organizational infrastructure for dealing with this in a holistic manner.  Mobility solutions and BYOD policies are generally pretty far removed from traditional WAN governance.  These functions might fall under the LAN group, but they may also be under the purview of applications.  So managing the Wireless WAN is most likely kind of free floating among various units within the organization. 

Our world is in a continual cycle of convergence, and the mandate for recognizing and regulating the use of and policies for cellular bandwidth is of extreme import.

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