Virtualization has transformed server and storage operations, and it’s changing the face of networking as well. What’s next for this evolution? Wide area networking (WAN).

Industry experts expect spending on software-defined WAN products to soar over the next few years. For example, IDC projects spending on SD-WAN to rise to $6 billion by 2020, up from just $225 million in 2015.

SD-WAN can replace expensive, purpose-built hardware and network transport services with commodity solutions that sit beneath the network control layer. Under this scheme, two or more network transports are blended into a virtual WAN fabric imbued with intelligent routing and path control. The concept holds plenty of promise for organizations that want to operate WAN environments more simply and less expensively.

Today, many organizations rely on high-performance multiprotocol label switching (MPLS) links for their wide area data access. SD-WAN wrests control of MPLS service from major carriers such as Verizon and AT&T, augmenting or even replacing it to achieve lower cost, improved performance, enhanced management and better security. Among the benefits:

Performance visibility: Once data enters an MPLS link, it’s in a black box. When a problem crops up in an MPLS environment, the IT team must rely on the carrier to fix it. SD-WAN continuously monitors link behavior end to end, alerting staff to issues and enabling automated response to shortfalls by shifting traffic to alternative transports. The ability to peer into WAN links also helps IT staff make smarter decisions about everything from network policy rules to vendor service contracts.

Intelligent control: Unified management of the WAN fabric is at the heart of SD-WAN. IT staff can optimize routing tables, prioritize vital traffic and establish policy-based administration using sophisticated dashboards. The result: WAN traffic that shifts in real time to meet demands for network performance.

Uniform security: Every organization should encrypt its data traffic, yet much WAN data travels unencrypted. SD-WAN implementations encourage the use of end-to-end encryption, ensuring that wide area communications are strongly protected.

Provider independence: SD-WAN abstracts wide area network transports, making it possible to set commodity internet and even wireless LTE links alongside dedicated MPLS services. Organizations can wean themselves partially or even completely off pricey MPLS links — an effort that provides both redundancy and cost optimization.

SD-WAN is a new technology, one that poses challenges for adopters. For instance, replacing existing network switches with hardware that enables SD-WAN, such as Cisco ISR-4000 series routers, can get expensive. And IT professionals face high-stakes decisions when selecting a vendor and its infrastructure. They may choose hardware and services from a smaller vendor, a network giant such as Cisco Systems, or an MPLS incumbent like Verizon.

My advice is for IT leaders to go into an SD-WAN migration with their eyes open. With SD-WAN, you are taking on a lot of new roles, including the design and management of routing policies. Get ready for a new era of networking.

Learn more about SD-WAN in this white paper.