When you are around the tech industry for any length of time, you get used to certain technologies being talked about for years and years without ever seeming to come to full fruition. It happened with 5G, with IoT and countless others too numerous to mention.

Another that belongs on that list is SD-WAN – or software defined wide area network technology, to give it its full title. As far back as a decade ago, SD-WAN was being hailed as the heir apparent to MPLS (multiprotocol label switching) in networking infrastructure.

Cost effective and highly agile, SD-WAN seemed the natural solution to the mounting costs of MPLS as enterprise bandwidth demands accelerated. And yet by the end of the last decade, people were still mainly talking about the potential of SD-WAN rather than a mature technology making real waves.

Looking back, 2020 and the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic looks like it marked a sea change in SD-WAN’s fortunes – although perhaps not in the way anyone at the time expected. Figures suggest that when the pandemic hit, SD-WAN was just starting to find some momentum, with 61% of enterprises reporting they had started implementation at the start of that year.

But COVID-19 put the brakes on that in a dramatic fashion. A year later, the number of companies that had deployed or were in the process or deploying had almost halved to 36%.

Such a dramatic fall could have spelled the end of SD-WAN. And yet another year on, and market forecasts are predicting another dramatic upsurge in SD-WAN’s fortunes. Over the next six years, the SD-WAN market is forecast to grow at a massive CAGR of 26.2%, accelerating it from just under $1bn to over $5bn.

​What’s behind this rapid turnaround? It could well be that one of the major long term business and technology trends to emerge from the pandemic proves to be the making of SD-WAN. We’re talking, of course, about home and remote working.

How does SD-WAN support home working?

Let’s quickly recap what SD-WAN is. Software-defined networking (SDN) is an approach to networking management that replaces traditional hardware controllers (like routers and switches) with software equivalents. You still have an underlying hardware infrastructure to the network (like fibre optic cabling, wireless routers, hubs, repeaters, bridges etc). But the control layer is all done by software.

This makes SDN much more agile and dynamic than its hardware-based counterparts, not to mention more cost effective. You can run a network from a laptop, rather than having to have specialist engineers working with much more technically demanding (and often hard to access) physical equipment.

SD-WAN applies the principles (and benefits) of SDN to the wide area network – which in terms of business networking refers to how a single organisation or entity connects all of its branches and offices into a single coherent network over a large geographical area. While hard-ware based WAN solution like MPLS – which in effect creates a single physical circuit connecting dispersed points – have proven to be highly dependable, as mentioned, they also increase in cost the more points you join.

You can probably spot the issue of expanding a physical WAN to accommodate home working already. Instead of integrating maybe five or six branch offices or stores into a single network, you might suddenly find you need to connect 500 homes to allow staff to log into the network from home. Extending MPLS connections to so many points is a hugely complex and costly job.

But with SD-WAN, it becomes much more simple and cost effective. Using cloud-based SD-WAN as a service solutions and software clients, you can turn the physical infrastructure that normally delivers ordinary home broadband into an extension of the secure wide are network.

Why is SD-WAN better than a VPN?

But wait a moment, you might be thinking. Back in the old days (i.e. pre-pandemic) when I worked from home, didn’t I simply connect via a VPN?

VPNs, or virtual private networks, continue to be a viable option for connecting remotely but securely to a company network. But VPNs are session-based tools that users have to log into and out of again. With SD-WAN, you effectively redefine the network edge wherever you please (i.e. at the home of a member of staff), which means you can set up a permanent, persistent connection. No more frantic calls to IT when someone has forgotten their VPN log in (which could be a huge resource issue when you have large chunks of the workforce operating from home). Plus, whereas you have to install a VPN client on a device, with SD-WAN you can connect from any device.

Other benefits of SD-WAN over VPN include the fact that you get a high degree of control over how traffic is routed, whether that means going through the company data centre or direct to cloud services. That increases the level of network efficiency you can achieve, leading to smoother, slicker performance overall. It also means you can prioritise workloads, which is especially useful when workers are using more resource-intensive applications from home.

For the second episode of The WNTD podcast, we were joined by Jaap Zuiderveld, VP EMEA at NVIDIA, a pioneer in hardware manufacturing and accelerated full-stack computing – the company’s invention of the GPU in 1999 sparked the growth of the PC Gaming market, redefined computer graphics and ignited the era of modern AI. 

At Nvidia, you’re at the heart of everything. Tell us a bit about what that’s like. 

Our technology is embedded in pretty much everything that anybody does today. We’re a full stack computing company. If you’re a Google customer, an Amazon customer, a Windows customer, you’ll most probably get in touch with our technology. And as a company, we flourish in working on difficult matters; from vaccine development at the outset of covid, understanding the impact of climate change on our planet, or helping experts find a cure for cancer, we’re working through it – that’s what we’re about. 

What does it mean to be such a big part of people’s futures? 

When we start a new venture, we’re often doing something that’s never been done before. You want to prioritize understanding how you can make things better, so you need to be able to really listen to understand what that customer does completely. In our market today, too many people aren’t working in that way. you have to listen very carefully, understand the indicators of success and be ready to fail – a lot – that’s a part of our company culture.

If no one is making any mistakes, it’s not good, it means we’re not moving forward. It’s difficult for a lot of managers who join us because it’s hard to know how to motivate your people to embrace failure? You need to encourage people to be honest about what they do and the things that haven’t gone well, and likewise, you need managers themselves to give honest feedback. That’s one of the reasons we’re able to move so fast. 

Your staff retention is the best I’ve seen across the sector – and especially surprising in a sales environment – what are you doing right? 

We have a similar environment to that of a startup. We reset the organization every six months; we call it the parking lot exercise. Essentially, it’s like putting everyone in the parking lot and reassigning them to a new position. If you do that continuously, you keep your people really proactive. Sometimes people are better suited to a different job or a different role, and this is something we monitor constantly. 

When a small company grows by 40% – 60%, it can seem doable. But when you’re growing, for example, from 2 to 3 billion, that requires a different muscle. When you’re growing on such a large scale, you’ll necessarily often come across things you’ve never done or seen before, so this is another thing that helps us retain people; it keeps them interested, there’s a constant learning factor. 

Is there something in particular you look for amongst younger talent? 

Yes, three things: (i) their capacity to learn, (ii) their capacity to listen, (iii) and how diverse they are, in terms of how well-rounded they are. It’s one thing to have great academic scores, but the human element is very important. Are they a good team player? Could they be a good team leader and set a good example? These are things I look out for even at a very early stage. 

You can listen to the full episode, here for more on AI, investing in young talent, and more.  

In the third episode of The WNTD podcast, we were joined byJames Osborne, Co-Founder of The Recruitment Network, the fastest growing community for recruitment leaders who want to significantly improve their performance and profitability with purpose.

Where do you think the recruitment sector is heading? 

From a purely commercial point of view, the last couple of years have been extraordinary for the industry – very positive, in the sense that recruitment companies are largely very profitable at the moment, they’ve managed to scale their businesses over this period and lay solid foundations. 

There have been challenges though, including talent shortages. Every business owner, whatever industry they’re in, have learned a lot about their businesses, because they’ve had to navigate them and manage their people through extra-ordinary times, and that’s been really healthy. There’s a lot more focus now on building profitability as opposed to just turnover and focusing on proper engagement with employees as opposed to just having people hitting KPIs. The mindset has shifted in that sense which I think is good for the industry. 

Sometimes, especially during difficult times, it’s easy to get caught up in industry news and what people in the sector are saying. But I think, there are periods that you have to just see through and almost prepare for the worst. What do you think? 

The reality is, we’re going through different types of downturns. The one we had two years ago when Covid hit wasn’t a traditional recession or downturn, because the government stepped in, to bail companies out and pay furlough etc. So, a lot of people and businesses haven’t actually been through a real downturn. 

The one that we’re currently heading into is a flatlining of the marketplace – and you always get these cycles. It’s going to be a very different downturn for the recruitment sector, especially since we’re still in an environment where there are mass talent shortages, mass amounts of people leaving jobs, there aren’t enough skills – so, we may see an economic downturn in the sector and there’s likely to be some consolidation. But there’s still going to be huge demand for recruiters and talent, that’s the reality. 

An important thing to say is, we can talk ourselves into recession because we begin to believe our own rhetoric. If you read the newspaper headlines at the moment, they’re all sensationalised. If you actually take a look at the data, you’ll seen Coinbase announced an 18% cut of its workers in January, for example. But if you stop to think about what this really means, it’s not necessarily indicative that we’re headed into a recession, it just means the company has hired aggressively over the last 18 months – 2 years and they’ve decided to swap out some of the people they don’t need for their next stage of growth. So, that’s an example of just a short-term recession, it’s not a big deal. But when people just read the headlines, they start to panic. 

Recruitment can often seem salesy, and the way companies pitch it now is more focused towards business development. But how can companies make this happen? 

The reality is, business development in any organisation should never stop with the business-development department. Everybody in a business should be doing business development of some description; whether you’re a receptionist, whether your administrator, everyone has a part to play in the business to be the process.Should you ever stop doing business development? No, not at all. But does it change and morph? Of course, it does.

You can listen to the full episode, here