The software-defined wide area network (SD-WAN) is emerging as one of the hottest growth areas for the enterprise. With the demands of mobile users, the IoT and the emerging digital services market continuously pushing virtualized infrastructure past the data center to the cloud and beyond, organizations are in dire need of rapid provisioning and agile connectivity over the long haul.

But this is leading to a conundrum of sorts: Is it better to adopt a fully managed SD-WAN or should control be preserved in-house? Or is there even a middle-ground that alleviates much of the day-to-day burdens without risking availability or data integrity?

In most cases, the best solution will be based on your ultimate goals and the networking skill level of your internal IT team, says Silver Peak's Nav Chander. If you already have in-house WAN management capability, you might be better off doing it yourself than turning the entire operation over to a managed service provider (MSP). On the other hand, an MSP is likely to have a top-notch ecosystem ready to go, offering features like global connectivity, application visibility and high degrees of operational efficiency.

Lately, however, some organizations have begun employing a co-managed model, in which high-order policy development and enforcement are maintained in-house while the MSP handles basic connectivity, customer experience needs and SLA management. In most cases, the environment is governed by a customized orchestration stack that offers online configuration management and other tools that provide broad flexibility and the ability to meet unique networking needs under the MSP's general-purpose SD-WAN platform.

This is a fairly dramatic shift on the part of traditional WAN service providers, who initially viewed the SD-WAN as a threat to their MPLS offerings, says ADVA's Prayson Pate. Nowadays, SD-WAN is almost a necessity given the high demand coming from the enterprise industry. One issue still remaining, however, is the fact that most managed services are built on closed appliances located at the customer site. Not only does this tie the service to a specific infrastructure, but it undermines the notion of a services-based infrastructure. In the near future, look for more providers porting their platforms to open servers or universal CPE solutions.

The enterprise should also keep in mind that the SD-WAN is more adept at handling key workloads, such as VOIP and video, than standard wide area infrastructure. As tech consultant Lee Doyle points out, real-time performance is better served on an abstract network due to its greater predictability, latency characteristics and improved packet loss. To achieve this, however, the enterprise will need to establish policies that prioritize real-time traffic and then constantly monitor WAN links and adjust resource configurations to ensure all packets are given the support they deserve.

This is part of the reason SD-WAN deployments should be coupled with a thorough test and validation program that supplements the vendor's development and pre-deployment solutions. Neal Roche, CEO of Apposite Technologies, notes that a good WAN emulator is one of the best ways to measure application performance without disrupting live operations. In the lab, testers can apply impairments like jitter and delay, while at the same time observe packet flow through actual and predicted network configurations for improved change management and proactive troubleshooting.

The SD-WAN is clearly a crucial element in the digital transformation that is currently sweeping the enterprise industry. A distributed, virtualized data ecosystem is the only way to support the kind of flexibility needed for service-driven workloads.

But at the same time, organizations should shelve the traditional notions of network deployment and configuration when it comes to the SD-WAN. In this new world, the network itself becomes a service, and as such will require ongoing TLC to ensure optimal performance.

Whether you opt for in-house or outsourced management, or a combination of both, the primary responsibility for achieving key networking goals is yours.