SD-WAN: How to Get out of the Starting Gate
Let’s start with a blunt truth: network services—last mile connections, interstate transport, class of service packet prioritization—are most appreciated for their reliability, not for exciting design or innovative new features. Most people, from the C-Level down, care about network services only when they don’t work or fail to yield predictable, incremental reductions in the cost per unit of bandwidth. The screaming headlines in technology publications are reserved for the latest explanation of blockchain, or developments in artificial intelligence or big data. Advances in network throughput? Not so much.
But every decade or so—and, honestly, not much more frequently than that--a new service, or technology, or application appears in the network services space that presents an opportunity for companies to achieve—here it comes— “transformational change.” In 2018, the current darling of digital transformation in network circles is SD-WAN. Hype aside (and there’s plenty of it), SD-WAN solutions, coupled with a significant shift to Internet transport for a company’s network access, offers real promise to deliver enhanced network performance, significant savings on transport unit costs, and a more diverse portfolio of vendor options for a company’s network service spend. But to achieve this rare strategic sourcing trifecta and realize the full value of an SD-WAN and Internet transport transformation, companies must develop and execute a smart sourcing and deployment strategy. Certainly doable, but definitely not simple.
● SD-WAN’s potential to improve network performance is real. The technical case for deployment of SD-WAN is pretty straightforward, and the network performance benefits it provides are real. But it is not a technical solution in search of a problem; it is a solution to the real change in network usage and increased demand for bandwidth caused by the significant uptake in cloud service usage and the need to allocate network resources on an application centric basis. SD-WAN gives network operators powerful tools to provision and allocate those network resources more quickly and more efficiently to meet this changing demand set.
● The challenges of migrating to SD-WAN are also very real. Technical benefits yielding improved network performance don’t tell the whole SD-WAN story. Migration to an SD-WAN based network will likely require significant changes in the way a company manages its network, and some organizations may not have the right mix of resources and skills to realize the full benefits that SD-WAN promises. Managed service options are readily available but present significant challenges for organizations not experienced with or skilled at implementing and managing outsourced solutions. These issues must be acknowledged as real and addressed thoughtfully. But don’t let but organizational inertia cause over analysis or, worse, inaction.
● Understanding your options requires following a structured--but flexible-- process. The first step toward selecting an SD-WAN solution involves getting an understanding about the providers in the market (including, potentially, your network services incumbent vendors), the technical and operational differences in their offerings (there are many), and the overall pricing models that would apply to your use of their services. Even if you haven’t fully formed an SD-WAN strategy and made key decisions, like whether to adopt a managed or unmanaged solution, a smartly planned RFI process will get you the information you need. It also signals to the market that you know how to source the new technology. But be careful here: there is a real risk of garbage in/garbage out during this process, and you will need to produce more than just a typical form RFI that solicits vendor capabilities and sales brochures. By asking the right questions you can show that you have considered your own network requirements and your solution options. Instituting a sensible but structured process demonstrates you will be seriously evaluating the vendors’ responses.
● Migration to internet transport is a key step in this process, especially if you care about money. The enablement of an “internet first” network access strategy, where many expensive MPLS access connections are replaced with “cheap” broadband or dedicated internet access circuits, is a key driver of most corporate SD-WAN strategies. It’s also where the major cost savings are found. In some use cases, transport costs can be reduced by 10 to 40 percent substituting dedicated internet and 50-90 percent substituting business broadband for MPLS access. But availability of the services in particular locations (i.e., yours), quality of service, and vendor support can vary widely by vendor and geography. In this case, a more traditional RFP process is usually the best way to go, using competition among vendors where available to discipline proposed pricing, and ensuring that a particular vendor can satisfy your technical needs. Make sure you have resources to manage the process effectively and have access to competitive market rates for the services you are procuring.
● Embrace the opportunity to expand your vendor portfolio. Perhaps one of the most exciting aspects of SD-WAN (and the accompanying internet transport) is the appearance of new vendors in the somewhat static (and often noncompetitive) market for network services. Companies should be open-minded about giving these new faces a serious look and unsettling the incumbents who have likely been providing the same services to your company, unchallenged, for years. The perception that new vendors lack the experience to support your network or the capabilities to support your business should be tested by the processes described above, not accepted at first blush. Injecting competition into your network services sourcings will always yield significant benefits if executed effectively, even if services remain with incumbent providers who should always be given the opportunity to keep (or lose) your business
An SD-WAN migration requires a well-developed up-front strategy, a structured process that can efficiently and effectively vet the technical solutions available and obtain the most optimal pricing the market has to offer for the solution you need, and reasonable flexibility to re-shape and revisit your strategy informed by the actual data you receive and analyze.