A “Thing” Explainer – Technology Edition

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Click to learn more about author Leon Adato.

With so many technology buzzwords flying around (and it seems more being added by the day), it’s become increasingly difficult to fully grasp the functionalities of new technologies before the “next best thing” is announced, revealed, merged, acquired, or discovered. As tech pros, we have a difficult job – we must help demystify trends and rumors about new technology, and even counsel business leaders about new tech to adopt.

We’re the pros, but let’s admit it – none of us truly knows everything. We all have learning to do and skills to develop if we want to be successful in our current and future endeavors. The recent report, IT Trends 2019: Skills for Tech Pros of Tomorrow, revealed that 75% of tech pros surveyed don’t feel “completely confident” they have all the necessary skills to successfully manage their IT environments over the next three to five years. Skills they specifically want (and need) to develop, according to the survey results, include hybrid IT, security, and software-defined everything (SDX). These were cited as key technologies for not only achieving career development, but also for driving larger organizational goals like innovation and business growth.

It’s high time to upskill in these areas. Sure, upskilling can include attending vendor trainings or consulting colleagues and online resources, but the first step in skill development is having a robust knowledge and understanding of the technology. Unfortunately, some of the most important technologies are the most commonly misunderstood or confused.

In the spirit of Randall Munroe, the creator of the online comic xkcd and the book Thing Explainer, let’s explore a few of these frequently confused tech terms. In this piece, we’ll dive into SDN, SD-WAN, hybrid WAN, and even touch on 5G for good measure. This article will be the first of a two-part series; in part 2, we’ll dive into best practices and tips for handling all the “things” we’ve thing-explained here.

SDN Explained

Let’s start with software-defined networking (SDN). In discussing SDN, we first have to step back and look at “traditional” network devices. Traditional network devices have two basic parts: the part moving data and the rules looking at the data to decide how the data should (or shouldn’t) move. In traditional networking, all the work goes into configuring those rules – and then replicating those rules around the entire enterprise, making slight modifications to each device based on “where” it is – either logically (DMZ, production, etc.) or physically (main office, satellite location, etc.). That means each device configuration must be accounted for separately and each device is a potential point of failure.

SDN, on the other hand, separates those two “parts.” The part moving the data – the data plane – stays the same. But the rules are all located on a central system, the “control plane.” The control plane is programmed with data profiles – descriptions of traffic based on source, destination, type, volume, time of day, etc. These profiles are associated with rules describing how to handle this traffic. The control plane can see all the traffic on the data plane of all devices and it pushes rules to each device in response to the kind of traffic each device is seeing at any given moment.

Diving Into SD-WAN: What’s Everybody (Still) WANing About?

Now that we’ve explored SDN, let’s dive into SD-WAN. There are many different ways a business can connect its sites together. That ranges from expensive, enterprise class links like Multiprotocol Label Switching (MPLS) to guarantee privacy, uptime, and service quality to cheap and fast home-user grade broadband offerings with no guarantees for uptime or quality. SD-WAN supports all those connection types and then, like SDN, enables you to create rules to send different types of traffic through the best type of connection; that can be ensuring voice and video call data use the most reliable connections, while internet browsing uses the less expensive options, for example.

Still WANing? Enter: Hybrid WAN

Hybrid WAN is (at a high level) what it sounds like. With hybrid WAN, a company sets up more than one type of network (MPLS, broadband, etc.) between sites, and then uses traditional network gear and standard route management techniques so different types of network traffic use the best method regarding security, reliability, and cost.

The Big 3 of 5G

5G refers to the next “generation” (G) of cellular connections. It has three improvements over previous cellular connection types: bigger data transfer, faster response times, and more devices supported.

Let’s explore those a bit further.

  1. Bigger data transfer means you’ll be able to send and receive larger amounts of data – whether video streaming, gaming, images, or video calls – at the same time. That means that some things that aren’t possible today (such as making a call at the same time you surf the internet, on some carriers) will be smooth and seamless under 5G. At the same time, some uses that weren’t feasible before, like applications requiring large data transfers between the phone and the server, will become possible.
  2. While bigger data transfer relates to the amount of information you can send or receive, “faster response times” refers to how quickly the data moves from device to tower and vice-versa.
  3. More devices supported has less to do with the phone in your hand than it does about the phone in everyone else’s hands around you. Cell towers only can handle so many connections at the same time. When too many people try to connect to the same tower at the same time, someone is going to lose. In most cases, towers can “fudge” by making some types of connections (like texting, video that can be buffered on the phone, and internet browsing) wait a few seconds, and then juggling all those device wait states while it continues to serve voice calls with good quality. But even so, at times of high usage, the cell tower can get overwhelmed. The only option is for the cell phone company to put up more towers. 5G will allow each tower to handle more simultaneous connections, which means less expense for the company. It also means the company can offer cellular network service to an entirely new class of devices besides phones and tablets, such as sensors, smart devices, and whatever else the tech industry comes up with.


And there you have it – SDN, SD-WAN, hybrid WAN, and 5G explained. Now that we’ve done a deep dive into what these technologies mean and entail, in part 2 of this series we’ll explore best practices for monitoring, managing, troubleshooting, and everything in between.

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