Not too long ago, private wide area networks (WANs) were considered revolutionary technology that changed the way organizations communicated. But just as the technology displaced its predecessors, private WANs now face being overtaken by newer technologies, including mobility and the cloud.

It’s difficult to say what the future of private WAN is — or if it even has a future. To make any predictions, it is important to first understand the threats private WANs face from competing technologies.

Threats

Smartphones represent one of the biggest challenges for private WANs in today’s environment. Worldwide, nearly 350 million smartphones were sold in the first quarter of 2016, according to research by Gartner. That figure eclipses PC sales for the entire 2015 year, which Gartner said totaled just 289 million.

It seems that smartphones will dominate the future of networking, and service providers will focus their network designs primarily on smartphones rather than PCs.

In addition to changing the networking landscape, smartphones have dramatically accelerated the pace of technology and equipment upgrades. Devices turn over in a matter of a couple of years, whereas it sometimes takes decades to adopt new technologies in the enterprise IT space.

Another significant challenge to the private WAN is the cloud. Applications previously housed on corporate networks are increasingly being shifted to cloud services, and new cloud applications are emerging constantly. This is eating into the domain previously dominated by WANs.

Challenges

Private WANs should deliver four fundamental functions, but are falling short in some cases.

  • Superior reliability. Networks need to be reliable to be valuable. In reality, private WANs are often unreliable because of lags in repair times and ineffective support.
  • Predictability. Private WAN users should know what they are getting when they use the network. But often private WANs employ shared backbones that can result in unpredictable performance.
  • Simplicity. Private WANs should be simple in terms of predictability of response time and bandwidth. However, users often have little choice in managing the complexity of the network.
  • Good security. Because private WANs are not shared or public, users expect a high degree of security. But a lack of guarantees, audits, and certifications has led to a breakdown in security or the perception of security.

The Cost Factor

As in many cases where a user must weigh the pros and cons of one technology over another, cost is a major factor. Currently, private networks are much more expensive than shared options — as much as 10 times more expensive by some estimates. Unless this price disparity changes, corporate networks are wise to consider the Internet as a viable option to replace private WANs.

What’s Next?

A large part of the reason private WANs face an uphill battle is that they no longer effectively serve users where they are. The increase in mobile usage as well as the cloud has turned static, physical work spaces into relics in many cases. People need access to their network wherever they are, not just while they are sitting behind a desk working on a PC.

Companies that are thinking about whether the Internet makes sense for their networking needs should begin taking steps now to prepare for that transition.