Do you have a wide area network (WANs) at your company? If you operate globally, you probably do. That’s because WANs are powerful business tools. They make it possible for large organizations to communicate internally faster and more efficiently. They also make it possible for consumers to enjoy company benefits they couldn’t enjoy in the past.

With all these things going for it, you’d think the WAN would be the next frontier in information technology.

But the state of the Enterprise WAN is mixed—at least according to a study done by Aryaka, which provides global connectivity to enterprises worldwide.  “While certain components of the enterprise WAN are improving,” says Aryaka’s State of the Enterprise WAN 2015, “others are actually hindering the enterprise’s ability to conduct business over the Internet, especially when application traffic must travel over long distances.”

Clearly, WANs have their pros and cons and aren’t going away anytime soon. In fact, they’re here to stay until something better comes along. Like every technological tool, you need to use them in the right scenario to benefit from them. If your company is planning on creating a wide area network to boost global communications, it’s a huge benefit for you to know the advantages and disadvantages of WANs.

What Are Wide Area Networks

WANs are large communication networks that connect locations over a wide geographical area, including cities, states, countries, and continents. Enterprise WANs are often built for one organization and are usually private. Often, they’re created using leased lines involving a direct point-to-point connection between two private sites. A leased line is a direct connection between two points set up by a telecommunications carrier, like a T-1 channel. And while they resemble Local Area Networks (LANS) a great deal, WANs are structured and operate quite differently.

WANS aren’t new, they’ve been around for a while with some people tracing their roots to the 1970s, 1980s and even the 1990s. That’s when Frame Relay Service appeared as an alternative to the point-to-point service options then being offered. This new service offered numerous advantages including lower monthly costs, fewer physical connections to oversee, and less expensive router hardware to manage. In any case, WANs represented a viable communication option for businesses and remain so today.

WANs Grow and Expand

WAN technology has grown and expanded over the years. New technologies, services, and applications developed during that time, dramatically boosting their impact on business. Why are they so useful to businesses? Two Reasons:  WANs let businesses use common resources to operate. They also let businesses share internal functions, like sales, R&D, accounting, and marketing throughout authorized locations through the network. Those two things boost productivity and communications.

The latest development in this area is software defined WAN technology (SD-WAN) — a specific application of software defined networking applied to wide area network connections. The virtualized server and storage structure of the modern data center is an example of software defined networking. It makes the network more dynamic, manageable, and adaptable  For example, a WAN often connects branch offices to a central corporate network or to connect data centers located great distances away. With SD-WAN, more of the network’s controls are moved to the “cloud” using software. That lowers costs, reduces complexity, and increases flexibility. Plus, SD-WANs provide better security.

Advantages of WANS

If your company has branches in several locations, a wide area network is a viable option to boost productivity and increase internal communications. Below are some of the more critical business advantages to establishing a WAN:

  • Centralizes IT infrastructure — Many consider this WAN’s top advantage. A WAN eliminates the need to buy email or file servers for each office. Instead, you only have to set up one at your head office’s data center. Setting up a WAN also simplifies server management, since you won’t have to support, back-up, host, or physically protect several units. Also, setting up a WAN provides significant economies of scale by providing a central pool of IT resources the whole company can tap into.
  • Boosts your privacy — Setting up a WAN allows you to share sensitive data with all your sites without having to send the information over the Internet. Having your WAN encrypt your data before you send it adds an extra layer of protection for any confidential material you may be transferring. With so many hackers out there just dying to steal sensitive corporate data, a business needs all the protection it can get from network intrusions.
  • Increases bandwidth — Corporate WANS often use leased lines instead of broadband connections to form the backbone of their networks. Using leased lines offers several pluses for a company, including higher upload speeds than your typical broadband connections. Corporate WANS also generally offer unlimited monthly data transfer limits, so you can use these links as much as you like without boosting costs. Improved communications not only increase efficiency but also boost productivity.
  • Eliminates Need for ISDN — WANs can cut costs by eliminating the need to rent expensive ISDN circuits for phone calls. Instead, you can have your WAN carry them. If your WAN provider “prioritizes voice traffic,” you probably won’t see any drop off in voice quality, either. You may also benefit from much cheaper call rates when compared to calls made using ISDN circuits. Some companies use a hybrid approach. They have inbound calls come over ISDN and outbound calls go over the WAN. This approach won’t save you as much money, but it will still lower your bill.
  • Guaranteed uptime — Many WAN providers offer business-class support. That means you get a specific amount of uptime monthly, quarterly, or yearly as part of your SLA. They may also offer you round the clock support. Guaranteed uptime is a big plus no matter what your industry. Let’s face it. No company can afford to be down for any length of time in today’s business environment given the stringent demands of modern customers.
  • Cuts costs, increase profits — In addition to eliminating the need for ISDN, WANs can help you cut costs and increase profits in a wide variety of other ways. For example, WANS eliminate or significantly reduce the costs of gathering teams from different offices in one location. Your marketing team in the United States can work closely with your manufacturing team in Germany using video conferencing and email. Saving on the travel costs alone could make investing in a WAN a viable option for you.

WANS also provide some key technical advantages as well. In addition to providing support for a wide variety of applications and a large number of terminals, WANs allow companies to expand their networks through plug-in connections over locations and boost interconnectivity by using gateways, bridges, and routers. Plus, by centralizing network management and monitoring of use and performance, WANS ensure maximum availability and reliability.

Disadvantages of WANS

While WANS provide numerous advantages, they have their share of disadvantages. As with any technology, you need to be aware of these downsides to make an informed decision about WANS. The three most critical downsides are high setup costs, security concerns, and maintenance issues.

  • High setup costs — WANs are complicated and complex, so they are rather expensive to set up. Obviously, the bigger the WAN, the costlier it is to set up. One reason that the setup costs are high is the need to connect far-flung remote areas. However, by using public networks, you can set up a WAN using just software (SD-WAN), which reduces setup costs. Keep in mind also that the price/performance ratio of WANs is better now than a decade or so ago.
  • Security Concerns —WANs open the way for certain types of internal security breaches, such as unauthorized use, information theft, and malicious damage to files. While many companies have some security in place when it comes to the branches, they deploy the bulk of their security at their data centers to control and manage information sent to their locations. This strategy reduces management costs but limits the company’s ability to deal directly with security breaches at their locations. Some companies also have a hard time compressing and accelerating SSL traffic without significantly increasing security vulnerabilities and creating new management challenges.
  • Maintenance Issues — Maintaining a WAN is a challenge, no doubt about it. Guaranteeing that your data center will be up and operating 24/7 is the biggest maintenance challenge of all. Data center managers must be able to detect failures before they occur and reduce data center downtime as much as possible, regardless of the reasons. Downtime is costly, in fact, a study done by infonetics Research estimates that medium and large businesses in North America lose as much as $100 million annually to IT and communication technology downtime.

Other maintenance concerns include link quality and performance degradation, on-demand throughput, load balancing for the data center, bandwidth management, scalability, and data center consolidation and visualization

As the person responsible for your company’s network requirements, you need to consider both the advantages and disadvantages of this powerful tool to make an informed decision on the viability of a WAN for your company.

WANs are powerful business tools. They boost an organization’s communications, competitiveness, and even profitability. But WANS also have their downsides too, including internal security concerns and significant maintenance challenges. Either way, now you have the facts.