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Searching for an SD-WAN Solution

Recently, I was working with a client on the Gulf Coast who needed to bolster their network reliability and resiliency and enhance their network flexibility in case of a hurricane or other disaster. We decided to investigate SD-WAN and all it had to offer, including its cost-saving potentials.
 
This client had a single data center at its HQ site and numerous branch offices. They had an MPLS network with a single Internet circuit at their HQ for all sites. Their goals were:
  1. To backup their primary network with VPN failover
  2. To allow the branch offices to connect directly to their cloud-based services (UCAAS/CCAAS and MS O365)
  3. To enable the branch offices to connect to a 3rd party host via VPN, in case the HQ ever went down (hurricane, disaster, etc.)
  4. To insure their UCaaS/CCaaS voice solution was operating at a high level and had reliable connectivity
There are numerous SD-WAN options out there. The players in the SD-WAN market also come from different market segments, and they converge on this new technology from different places, including networking, WAN acceleration, firewall, and pure SD-WAN spaces.
 
For clients looking into SD-WAN, there are managed, unmanaged, and co-managed options. Managed SD-WAN services are some of the most appealing options. Managed SD-WAN companies promise a single solution for:
  • An SD-WAN vendor
  • Managed circuits (including MIS, broadband, wireless, satellite, others)
  • Network security vendor (Firewalls, IPS, IDS, etc.)
  • One point of contact for:
    • Ordering circuits
    • Circuit repair
    • Moves, adds, changes
  • A single monthly fee/invoice for the solution
This seemed to be an excellent fit for the client’s needs, so we began our search for a managed SD-WAN service provider.
 
Managed SD-WAN Vendors Vary Greatly
The vendors that we interviewed came in all shapes and sizes, from 20 to thousands of employees, and each had a different background – copper telephone line reseller, telecom carrier, telecom reseller, and managed network service provider. Their selected technologies differed too. From an SD-WAN perspective, they offered Velocloud, Versa, Barracuda, Big Leaf, Cisco, Silverpeak, etc. From a security standpoint, there were varied options also – from on-prem solutions to cloud-based solutions. Their sales teams varied from sharp to careless. The pricing commanded a healthy premium but likely deserved since there are many pieces to coordinate and manage.
 
SD-WAN Isn’t a Commodity
One observation – SD-WAN solutions vary greatly in emphasis. For example, one solution heavily emphasized network security with on-prem firewalls, but the SD-WAN performance was secondary. Another solution focused heavily on SD-WAN performance and provided the network security solution from another vendor separately. Certainly, you need to research an SD-WAN solution's performance, features, and functionality. They don’t perform with the same results (a proof of concept can shed light on this). This isn’t a commodity technology.
 
Since the client was implementing a UCaaS/CCaaS solution, SD-WAN performance was an important factor. This narrowed down our vendor choices. With these options, cloud-based network security then became an equally important factor. How top SD-WAN vendors architected their solutions and integrated with the cloud directed us to more cloud-based network security solutions. This narrowed our vendor options yet again.
 
Reputation, References
Once we had a few managed services vendors to choose from, we started checking their references and industry reputation. Often in making technology decisions, checking references and reputations is a formality. However, in this case, we had several bad references. One of the references had recently changed its managed services vendor to another company!
 
We also checked online sources, and I checked with my consulting colleagues. With three different vendors, we had negative feedback on all three vendors, from the way they treated their employees, to how careless or unknowledgeable their reps were, to performance issues. We were shocked and disappointed. The promise of a single vendor, a single invoice, and a managed SD-WAN/security service was dashed.
 
The one good thing we found is that there were companies with an SD-WAN solution that had very few issues, and the technology was working well for them. With this feedback, we had to re-group and re-think our approach.
 
Takeaways on Managed SD-WAN Services
Managed SD-WAN service providers will have to improve their performance and quickly. With online ratings of these companies and industry reputations more easily obtainable, these vendors have to provide high levels of service, or they just won’t survive. Providers that can deliver on good technology/service will see increases in revenue and long-term customer satisfaction. Not only do they provide cost-savings, redundancy and resiliency, but it's one less thing for IT to manage. 
 
Continuing the Search for an SD-WAN Solution
In my next article, I will take you through the next steps in our quest to find an SD-WAN solution, by looking at the world of co-managed/un-managed SD-WAN services options and why this client chose to go this direction.
 

SCTC Perspectives is written by members of the Society of Communications Technology Consultants, an international organization of independent information and communications technology professionals serving clients in all business sectors and government worldwide.