Selecting the Right Enterprise WAN Hardware
In this blog post, we'll go through the criteria you should think through when selecting the optimal enterprise Wide Area Network (WAN) hardware.
Even if you’re the sort of person who enjoys shopping, it’s unlikely you get your kicks trawling the internet for enterprise wide area network (WAN) equipment (but if you do, that’s okay…no judgment here).
Shopping for WAN hardware is next-level complicated. And whether you’re a technophile, an enterprise network engineer…or just someone who wishes that all equipment reviews could make life this simple, it’s prudent to get some advice. You don’t need to go it alone!
So, here’s the criteria you should use to assess potential WAN hardware purchases or leases.
Existing hardware vendors
By the way, it’s also worth reading our guide on designing the optimal enterprise WAN in addition to this post if WAN engineering is on your docket.
Some devices are designed to work with a few different types of networks and routing protocol, while others are specific to one kind of network.
If you’re looking for something network specific, there are two questions to answer:
Are you shopping to replace outdated equipment, but intend to retain your current network topology?
Is the purchase part of a whole-network overhaul?
If you’re changing the topology or other major network factors, proceed with caution when purchasing network-specific WAN hardware. For example, some appliances might only work on an OSI Layer 3 network, so if you’re transitioning to VPLS or a similar Layer 2 topology, you’ll need a Layer 2 device.
What exactly do you need? Are you shopping for a router, a switch, a firewall, a wireless access point – or something that does all the above?
There’s plenty of “all-in-one” devices designed to cover multiple functions – and just as many pieces of dedicated, single-purpose WAN hardware. While you might get better performance from a dedicated, single-purpose appliance, you could be making life more complicated with multiple potential points of failure and vendors with which to argue. Figure out what’s important for your enterprise topology and buy accordingly.
Are you going to back up your appliance, as part of your overall WAN network redundancy planning?
Depending on what’s considered critical to your operations, you could do the following.
Take a chance with a single instance and no redundancy appliance.
Run a single instance, but keep a cold spare housed regionally with IT or at a central branch.
Keep a cold spare on site.
Select a high-availability installation (more about this later).
Build full N-modular redundancy with hardware included (as described in the linked redundancy planning article above).
While N-architecture is typically reserved for larger enterprises and data centers, it’s worth considering for smaller enterprises whose business continuity is critical for their wellbeing and others, e.g., emergency response teams.
Rather than a cold spare that you’d have to dig out in a hurry if your appliance goes on the fritz, high-availability (HA) network topologies involve keeping two appliances running simultaneously – one in “primary” mode (doing the work), and another in “standby/listening” mode.
The two devices remain in constant communication – and if the primary appliance ceases to communicate, the standby appliance automatically assumes primary duties.
HA is considered an integral component of fault-tolerant network topologies – but it’s not a capability available with all appliances, so if you’re designing with HA in mind, you’ll need to check it’s included.
Continuing the theme of business continuity, if your network redundancy planning involves multiple carriers and/or circuits connected to your site equipment, it’s important to make sure that your WAN hardware is sufficiently equipped to handle multiple circuits.
How much bandwidth do you need? If you’re running a “digital-first” kind of enterprise, you’ll need to match your high bandwidth requirements with equipment that can handle that kind of throughput.
This basically boils down to computing power – your WAN hardware appliances are no different from your laptop in this regard, and high-bandwidth network devices need plentiful CPU, RAM, and disk space to make the grade. Bandwidth capacity is one of the more important factors affecting your choice of WAN hardware.
It’s also going to affect whether you choose dedicated-purpose or multi-functional equipment.
While the overall throughput of a multi-functional appliance might be impressively high, if that capacity is split between various functions (including firewall functionality, which is going to have to process everything coming through) then you might find out too late you’ve backed the wrong horse.
Before you get into the weeds with this, it's worth crunching a few numbers to get a rough assessment of your bandwidth requirements.
As fiber WAN circuits become more common, enterprise sites can select between different types of “handoffs” – the method of transfer used to pass data between the wide area network and the local area network (LAN). The two types of handoffs commonly on offer are Electrical Ethernet or Fiber Optical, and your choice of handoff is going to determine your choice of WAN hardware.
It’s worth talking to your ISP first, to find out what your current handoff method is – some vendors price their handoff options differently, too.
Existing Hardware Vendors
Will you go all the way with your favorite vendor, or mix and match vendors?
There are distinct advantages to choosing one vendor for everything. You can leverage your bulk buying to get WAN hardware discounts. Further, recruiting an MSP with expertise around your hardware becomes easier when you stick to one vendor (or training an in-house team, if that’s your approach).
And when there are technical difficulties, you can dispense with the blame game that companies sometimes like to play – you’ll know exactly whose equipment is at fault, and there’ll be less time wasted trying to figure out who needs to fix it.
However, you should bear in mind that those technical difficulties could present you with a real headache if you’ve bought the same glitchy product for each of your business locations.
Using one vendor might also limit your options for finding the “best-in-breed” appliances that’ll provide the most efficient performance – the requirements for enterprise WAN hardware vary considerably, so it’s not often that one brand can give you the best solution for every element.
Do you want WAN appliances with firewall capabilities? Cybersecurity considerations are critical to network design – the only right answer here is to choose the type of appliance that works best for your overall network security posture.
If you’re looking for appliances with firewall capabilities, you’ll need to figure out what works best from the following options.
Packet filtering firewall
Application-level gateway (a.k.a. proxy firewall)
Stateful inspection firewall
Next-generation firewall (NGFW)
This is often where they “get ya” – maintenance costs for enterprise WAN hardware are a whole new ballgame, and the costs can quickly add up.
A tiered pricing strategy is common here, with a range of options.
“8x5xNBD” – meaning 8am to 5pm (business hours) fault resolution support with Next Business Day replacement of hardware
“8x5x4” – 8am to 5pm fault-resolution support with hardware replaced within four hours, if required
“24x7x4 – round-the-clock, 24/7 fault resolution support with four-hour replacement of hardware
Your equipment will need configuring to work effectively with your network. How does this affect your choice of equipment?
Well, that depends on your network. If your network topology is well-established with clear routing protocols and doesn’t often require alterations, a device with graphical user interface (GUI) certification functions should be sufficient. These devices are much easier to certify, usually requiring a “point-and-click” set-up.
However, GUI devices don’t offer a great deal of customization functionality – so if your network is more complex (and your network technician is up to the job of programming specialized certification) then Transaction Language 1 (TL1) or Command Line Interface (CLI) devices will allow you to configure more bespoke network routing options.
Another reason to reach for the magnifying glass, the small print concerning WAN hardware licensing can leave your eyes watering if you’re not careful.
Different vendors (and different devices) take very different approaches to how they choose to monetize their equipment licensing. Some kindly vendors make your life easier by including a perpetual license as a freebie when you purchase their equipment.
Other vendors choose to create revenue opportunities by adding a subscription model, with incremental increases at every yearly renewal.
Sometimes, this can get downright silly, with devices that won’t provide full throughput until you’ve paid to unlock their complete potential with a higher licensing tier. In these situations, it’s worth checking that the licensing costs don’t outweigh what you’ve paid for the equipment.
Ok…got what you need? Calculated your bandwidth? Accommodated all your redundancy options? Vetted your potential purchases according to network type? Great.
What about next year, though? Or the year after?
Most businesses find their bandwidth requirements don’t stand still – far from it. In fact, you can expect your bandwidth requirements to double every 18 months, on average.
Hopefully, you’ve got the hang of estimating your bandwidth requirements already – now it’s time to combine those figures with your five-year plan to see whether the equipment you’re buying now is going to meet your projected needs two years down the line.
Take The Pain Out of WAN Procurement, with Lightyear
Designing the optimal WAN and selecting circuit / hardware vendors is hard. Lightyear’s platform helps you digitally design your optimal WAN while also providing consultative network engineering expertise to help you think through network design choices and hardware selection.
Request a free demo, if you’d like to explore the many advantages Lightyear’s automated platform brings to the long and sometimes grueling WAN procurement process.
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