A breakdown of the pros and cons for choosing a WAN solution for your company
Broadly defined, a WAN (Wide Area Network) is the geographically distributed data communications network offered by service providers and telecommunication carriers. A WAN is used to link together geographically separated office buildings, and includes fiber cables running underneath ground. From a customer perspective, WAN infrastructure is completely transparent.
The WAN provides Internet connectivity for web browsing and Internet access, cloud access for companies that use it and access to the company’s VPN. The VPN is used for individual users to get behind the firewall and access office resources even when they are working off site. In today’s inter-connected world where more and more employees work from home or while traveling, this access is critical.
When it comes to choosing a WAN network for your business, there are a few options, and some pros and cons to each choice.
Option 1: Point to Point (Leased Line)
Point to point, or leased line, is when you rent a private circuit from a telecommunications company. The company provisions the virtual circuit for you, the customer, meaning that you never need to share.
Some benefits to this option is the fast, reliable performance and low latency since the circuit remains static and is dedicated just to your traffic. In metropolitan areas, the Metro Ethernet offers lightning fast connections, but this is only available in certain cities that have the proper infrastructure to support it.
The biggest con to a point to point dedicated leased line is the price. Since you reserve a certain line capacity from telecom carriers, you pay for that reservation, and the allocation is kept reserved for you whether you use it or not. This is good for speed and dependability, but it comes at a cost.
Option 2: Circuit Switching (ISDN, PSTN, X.21)
Similar to when you make a phone call, circuit switching refers to a dedicated bank of switches offered by a service provider. When packets are delivered, a virtual path is created – a prime example of this is PSTN dial-up lines.
While still used in some areas, this is an old type of technology and is slowly being phased out. Latency issues and no guarantees of bandwidth are some of the reasons circuit switching is not the preferred option, and the speed issues make it highly unsuitable for voice or video traffic. As of 2018, service providers in Europe won’t even offer ISDN service anymore. While at one time every company had something relying on circuit switching technology, times have changed and evolved past it.
Option 3: Frame Switching (MPLS, Frame Relay, SMDS)
With frame switching, Internet traffic is processed on an active basis. When the packet comes in, it goes to the routers, which automatically establish a pipeline. This fast, efficient technology is perfectly suited to voice and data traffic, and very reliable due to protocol that “knows” which switches are working, so it’s able to reroute traffic in sub-seconds instead of sending it through older switches.
Some traffic gets higher priority when traveling through this type of network. As the packet arrives, it carries a header, which contains information about what kind of traffic it is and how much bandwidth is required. Since video needs higher quality, it automatically gets routed through the highest available latency path. This method is very efficient at handling simultaneous voice and data traffic since the traffic can be prioritized natively, and the switch will automatically know how to handle each type.
However, there can be delays depending on the equipment load. The service provider guarantees a certain amount of bandwidth – for example, 1 MB – and the option to burst up as needed. Everything beyond that guaranteed amount is based on availability and equipment usage and load. If the equipment is underutilized, you will enjoy excellent connectivity. If the equipment is overloaded, then you’ll just get what you pay for.
Frame switching is ideal for meshed networks – meaning interconnected offices in different locations. With meshed networks, traffic is sent into the frame switch and it knows which office to sent the traffic through by setting up a virtual path instantaneously. This method eliminates bottlenecks created by routing all network traffic through a central office.
Since you only use the bandwidth available to you, this system could potentially be used by hundreds of thousands of users at once. That makes the cost very low compared to some other WAN options. The biggest con to frame switching is that it’s not available in all areas, but is only offered in areas where fiber cables are available. Frame switching will become more readily available as the industry moves in that direction for the future.
Option 4: Broadband/Wireless
Broadband offers Internet delivered over a standard coaxial cable – the same kind used by cable TV providers. Usually lower in price, this method is dependent upon availability, and is good for downloads but not for uploads. If there’s a television service offered, then broadband Internet is most likely also an option.
Option 5: Wireless/Satellite
Used in remote areas, the satellite option has high latency and low throughput. As unreliable as the weather, this option is mostly used as a backup and not as the main service provider. Cloudy days and storms are enough to render wireless connections utterly useless.
The biggest hurdle for a business looking to set up a WAN is to determine needs and options. If a company needs to run time sensitive data frequently, then they should consider technology that offers guarantees for the speed of that traffic – like frame switching.
Some other factors to consider are bandwidth availability, scalability, performance and quality of service, security, reliability and cost. A company should always research how quickly they can scale up service when needed; with point to point, that option is much more limited compared to frame switching. The service provider should be able to quickly fix dialed circuits, and configurations on customer equipment should be able to work with telecommunication equipment. Start by assessing needs versus budget and making a list of pros and cons, then make an informed decision for your business.
Need expert advice on WAN connectivity? Contact the VIMRO team and get all your questions answered!