Apr 08 2021

What are the Benefits of SD-WAN to K-12 Districts?

SD-WAN adoption offers networking advantages for K–12 schools. But how do districts effectively implement these solutions at scale?

Adoption of software-defined wide-area network (SD-WAN) solutions is on the rise as organizations look for ways to reduce complexity and improve performance across their IT stacks. K–12 schools also stand to benefit from the adoption of SD-WAN as they seek to manage both in-school and remote learning requirements.

Yet, many schools still have unanswered questions about SD-WAN, beginning with: What is it, exactly? Here’s what schools need to know about the network, how it compares with MPLS and if they should make the switch.

What Is SD-WAN?

In a traditional WAN, traffic handling relies on physical routers, and data is typically backhauled from individual schools to a centralized location where security and monitoring controls are applied. Software-defined WANs decouple control and data planes to provide improved network control and visibility.

While SD-WAN technology has the ability to incorporate a district’s existing physical routers and switches, this type of network’s framework leverages a software layer that makes it possible to handle policy, security, monitoring and management functions anywhere, anytime.

What Are the Benefits of SD-WAN for K–12 Schools?

SD-WAN solutions offer simplicity and agility, two broad benefits for K–12 schools, according to Amy McLaughlin, project director for CoSN’s Cybersecurity and Smart Education Networks by Design (SEND) initiatives.

Simplicity: “School districts that are larger than a single campus are often unable to use the same network provider for everything,” McLaughlin says. Depending where campuses are located, specific providers or services may not be available. McLaughlin notes that, in one instance, the presence of a rail line required schools in the same district to use separate providers for network services. SD-WAN solutions simplify school networks by allowing staff to interact with any service on the network, regardless of its location or origin.

Agility: SD-WAN also improves staff members’ agility by allowing them to manage multiple services simultaneously. McLaughlin says this is because SD-WAN “aggregates management in a single place regardless of where it comes from. It looks and manages like a single network, reducing the ‘person power’ required to manage multiple components.”

Amy McLaughlin
[SD-WAN] looks and manages like a single network, reducing the ‘person power’ required to manage multiple components.”

Amy McLaughlin CoSN, project director for Cybersecurity and Smart Education Networks by Design (SEND) initiatives

SD-WAN vs. MPLS: Which Should K–12 Schools Use?

Many traditional WAN networks are built around MPLS — multiprotocol label switching. This network framework has endured as a viable school and business solution for years thanks to its dependable performance; data packets are reliably delivered to their destinations with minimal loss in quality.

But MPLS also comes with potential drawbacks: Bandwidth costs are substantial, and prices may grow to be prohibitive as multimedia content, such as videos and interactive experiences, become essential for blended and hybrid learning environments. Additionally, MPLS requires proprietary devices to provide network services, while SD-WAN solutions can use commodity hardware.

To maximize efficiency and reduce total cost, many schools are now considering a transition from MPLS to SD-WAN but are unsure of how to get started.

McLaughlin puts it simply, saying, “Bring in someone who does network engineering and design. Unless your district is extremely comfortable with network technology, work with a partner or vendor to make the change.”

She also offers clear advice when it comes to scheduling the move from MPLS to SD-WAN: “Don’t do it during the school year.”

KEEP READING: SD-WAN solutions boost K–12 cybersecurity.

How Do SD-WAN and WAN Optimization Work Together?

While more schools are moving to SD-WAN to improve network management and reduce total costs, most still rely on hybrid environments that include elements of both SD-WAN and traditional WAN solutions, where applicable.

As a result, WAN optimization — also known as WAN acceleration — remains critical to ensure that networks deliver on their performance potential. WAN optimization techniques typically include several features.

Data caching: The process of data caching stores frequently used information on local hosts or servers to enable faster access. This reduces the number of data transfers required for students and teachers to access common network services.

Data deduplication: The scale of K–12 school networks means data duplication is inevitable. WAN deduplication processes find and eliminate duplicate information to reduce redundant data transfers.

Data compression: This WAN optimization technique reduces the size of data packets to minimize needed transfer bandwidth, allowing more data to be transferred more quickly across school networks.

In practice, the combination of advanced SD-WAN solutions and optimized WAN networks makes it possible for schools to get the most from software-defined offerings. Total data transmission volumes are reduced thanks to caching and deduplication, while overall bandwidth use is minimized by effective data compression techniques.

SD-WAN vs. WAN: What’s the Best Choice?

SD-WAN empowers schools to decouple data and control planes, making it easier to manage disparate services without increasing complexity or cost. In addition, McLaughlin notes that SD-WAN “provides more transparency into overall network utilization, which is helpful for long-term planning. Without this transparency, it’s challenging for schools to plan for future growth.”

Despite the distinct advantages of SD-WAN, however, many schools are well served by hybrid frameworks that combine advanced software solutions with optimized WAN frameworks. While the evolution of cloud-based SD-WAN solutions puts school districts on course for broader adoption over time, slow and steady uptake informed by existing network requirements provides the most stable path to optimal network performance.

MORE ON EDTECH: Satellites help get Wi-Fi to remote school districts.

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