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SD-WAN for Digital Transformation - Part 2

Use the best network available at the right time -- this is the concept of software-defined WAN (SD-WAN). In last week's No Jitter article, I discussed the what and why of SD-WAN, as well as the business challenges and opportunities in deploying it. Now, let's dig a little deeper into implementation and selection criteria for SD-WAN providers.

Remote Offices: What You Need

The remote/branch office usually has the least bandwidth, modest infrastructure, and one connection to a network. Meanwhile, as cloud services proliferate, the branch office needs to be able to perform selective traffic forwarding for each traffic type -- there's no one size fits all.

Any branch office should have, by default, at least two or more circuit accesses for traffic balancing and business continuity purposes. Additionally, if a branch office uses two different Internet providers, the enterprise can now measure performance of these two providers against one another and use the one that performs the best.

Most organizations have traditionally been a carrier customer. The carrier-based model offers a single source for public and private connectivity. However, there are number of non-carrier service providers now offering SD-WAN solutions. For enterprises with a distributed environment and the goal of displacing MPLS connectivity, non-carrier providers may be the better choice as these tend to deliver lower-cost options.

There are also carrier-neutral colocation options for enterprises with regional operations. The carrier-neutral approach not only offers a lower cost, but it may also offer flexible capacity as alternatives to MPLS and the VPLS.

The intelligence of the SD-WAN router provides improved information for monitoring and reporting application and end user statistics, measuring path quality and other performance metrics. This means that remote monitoring of the SD-WAN connection delivers a richer set of information to those operating the networks.

Selecting the SD-WAN Provider

When selecting an SD-WAN provider, you are selecting a provider for a strategic -- not just a tactical -- solution. Some of the points you must consider are:

  • The most important factor is network coverage. If you cannot get all your branch offices on the same provider or providers, then your solution will be fragmented and hard to manage.
  • There are a wide portfolio of services associated with SD-WAN, but not all service providers are equal. Consider the transport options such as MPLS, Metro-Ethernet, broadband, and LTE. The portfolio should include a set of monitoring and management tools that enterprise personnel can access to provide visibility and control.
  • Study the SD-WAN architecture relative to your business requirements and goals. You need to look for flexibility and agility. You also need the ability to scale capacity both upward and downward.
  • Just because the marketing department at the provider produces attractive websites, brochures, and webinars does not mean the technical expertise is there. You need to investigate what the provider has done in the past. You also need to look at the roadmap to see the future plans and if they satisfy your own vision of the network service.
  • Finally, you need to discuss the service-level agreements (SLAs) and what they mean for service delivery. SLAs may be very thorough or they may be rather minimal. Just because there are penalties attached for when providers don't meet their guarantees, this does not necessarily mean the penalties cover what you need. It is better to have a good service provider where you never have to invoke the SLAs.

Succeeding with SD-WAN

When you embark on any new technology or service implementation, there are always some good best practices to follow. In the case of SD-WAN, consider the following:

  • You have a set of requirements and goals for your network including cost, management, security, and performance. Set the priorities first and then look for providers that satisfy those requirements and goals. One of the requirements you should look for is online ordering and service delivery of the services. Service delivery should be in real time, measured in minutes or hours, not weeks or months.
  • Look at what you have in your inventory for the network. You will probably need an SD-WAN router. Can you retain current investments? Look for a solution that avoids the rip-and-replace philosophy.
  • Since this is a new technology, it may be a good idea to pilot some operations. See if it works well and make sure it works consistently over a period of time. When you do implement, confirm that you don't hurt your implementation by trying to do it during your daily busy times or your busy season. Avoid disruptions that harm the enterprise.
  • You should focus on the security the provider offers, both in the hardware on your premises and in the security of the network backbone. Do not degrade any of your security requirements.

All of these things are good ideas; however, if you don't have the visibility into the network and the ability to monitor and manage that network, you are moving backwards. Consider that if implementation is done correctly, the cost should decrease, not increase, while delivering the benefits of an SD-WAN.