September 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.


Mobile users bypassing the traditional corporate wired WAN with direct 3G/4G connections is one example of the WAN going wireless. Another is using the mobile WAN as a bona fide "last mile" access link to branch and home offices, temporary locations, and vehicles (for transportation and public safety applications). I'm talking about routers with 4G LTE connections in them.

Cisco, for one, makes branch routers with fixed 4G LTE connections and modular routers in which you can plug in a 4G LTE module. Its main competitors are Cradlepoint and Sierra Wireless, which each offer inexpensive routers that let you "bridge" your existing WAN access router to a 4G network. So you get no layer 3 network services over that WAN link, but that might be OK, if you're using it for simple or backup purposes.

4G LTE runs at theoretical speeds to 100 Mbps in international networks; at theoretical speeds to 50 Mbps using U.S. carriers. Typical throughput is closer to 30 Mbps. Not bad, if you want to bring up a temporary site (construction, kiosk, sporting event) or a new branch office fast. Or if you want reasonably priced backup to your T1/E1 or other wired last-mile link you might have in place. In these instances, the wireless WAN is "fixed" - simply filling in for a wired counterpart but at lower prices and greater flexibility. In the transportation use cases, a 4G router gets mounted right in the vehicle, and the 4G LTE last-mile link is a mobile one. Same network, but mobile application.


Another "nail in the coffin" of wired, location-based access to information and contacts with people. Yes, BYOD multimodal smartphones and tablets, are making it necessary to "virtualize" both communication and business apps, as well as data access, to provide more flexibility of choice for end user interactions with people and business processes.

I find it difficult to believe that things like BYOD paired with LTE (or whatever comes next) will accomplish what others (WIFI, MetroEthernet, MPLS, EDGE, HSDPA, ATM, Frame-Relay, ISDN or TDM) have failed to do; kill legacy telecom overnight. There are just too many use cases (legacy and contemporary) to quickly or entirely wipe the slate clean. Each new technology brings great promise and creative individuals and organizations keep leveraging the new and the old in amazing ways. For years things like basic telephony and long distance have been effectively given away, yet we still have tens of millions of people with analog phone service. I have no doubt the newer, better, faster, cheaper will eventually win out, but it will be a while. I suspect in the mean time wireless WAN will be leveraged by being combined creatively with legacy components.

I believe that the comment by Michael Benjamin is correct. Cost is also a factor since wired data is still much cheaper than cellular data. The advent of WebRTC will also redirect traffic in a major way, be it cellular or wired data, but switched voice via tdm will feel brunt of the new technology. Either way once the data has a fixed cost in both cellular and wired data platforms the usage will increase exponentially. I tend to think that this will mostly be in the favour of wired data deployments in the WAN due to the lower fixed data costs that currently prevail over the business WANs and the increase in fibre to the business deployments by service providers.

When your organization connects to a wide area service provider, the conversation will be typically along the lines of physical layer and data link layer. The service provider will define the physical layer options and of course that deals with the electrical, mechanical, and operational features of the connection. Access options to that media will also be defined and some options are listed here, frame-relay is one, ATM or HDLC encapsulation on serial links.
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