SD-WAN: where do you start?

12 July 2019

With around 60 SD-WAN providers all competing in the same space, Robert Shepherd asks the industry how an enterprise is supposed to choose between them.

SD-WAN is a topic that’s been gaining momentum for some time now, especially as industry experts and adopters become more attuned to its benefits.

However, for the sake of the enterprises that need it but don’t know what it is – as well as for the SD-WAN luddites out there – a definition of this alternative approach to network connectivity follows.

An acronym for software-defined networking in a wide area network, SD-WAN simplifies the management and operation of a WAN by decoupling the networking hardware from its control mechanism.

However, Anthony Senter, chief executive officer at SDWAN Solutions says that although SD-WAN might appear to be a new concept to many, the technology has been around for a lot longer than one might think. “Talari is credited with developing the first SD-WAN type devices in 2008 - and in 2015 Silver Peak released its first EdgeConnect device, the first SD-WAN to include WAN optimisation as a built-in feature,” he says. “Around the same time Velocloud was starting to make its name and product heard.”

The general consensus is that there are approximately 60 different SD-WAN providers in a crowded field, but Senter warns that a mere handful of vendors offer “top rated” solutions, while far too many are SD-WAN in name only. “The SD-WAN market is destined to be worth billions of dollars by 2020, so that’s why everyone wants a piece of the action,” he adds.

While that may be true, in the 11 years or so that SD-WAN has been around - some claim it has been around even longer – take up by enterprises has been relatively slow. Why is that? “I blame the confusion caused by sub-standard solutions being promoted as SD-WAN,” says Senter. “With so much conflicting information and a limited SD-WAN knowledge themselves, SD-WAN could seem like a daunting project. Customers are also used to the problems and delays around MPLS and are still thinking MPLS while talking about SD-WAN. More often than not, customers still remember their MPLS installation nightmare, a catalogue of errors and way over delivery timescales, some taking up to two years to roll-out. Silver Peak rolled out 189 SD-WAN sites for Nuffield Health in just four months.”

Silver Peak’s EdgeConnect device was the first SD-WAN to include WAN optimisation as a built-in feature

Silver Peak’s EdgeConnect device was the first SD-WAN to include WAN optimisation as a built-in feature

However, he warns that before enterprises even start to entertain a beauty parade of SD-WAN providers, it’s important that they know why one is needed in the first place. “Think Toys R Us and Debenhams,” says Senter. “Traditional networks are no longer fit for purpose as customers move their applications to not just one cloud, but multi-cloud. Not having internet breakout at every site increases solution costs and overheads.”

Like in any industry, partnering with another business requires a lot of faith, trust and an ability to step out of your comfort zone. With that in mind, you have to carry out your research because it appears that if you choose the wrong company, it could cost you in more ways than one. “A security breach will be biggest concern for hosted content,” says lead analyst Sam Barker at Juniper Research. “If the content is of a sensitive nature, then clients must consider the most secure platform.”

For Jan Hein Bakkers, research director European enterprise communications and collaboration at market intelligence firm IDC: “The biggest risk is buying a solution that does not deliver what a company expects. This can be caused by the performance, the expectations or a mix of both. Ensuring a common understanding and alignment of these with a prospective provider upfront will minimise this risk.”

However, Nick Sacke, head of IoT and products at managed solutions provider Comms365 says buying into certain technology brands may mean being tied into a partnership for many years and so there could be a much wider contractual problem going forward. “There is a danger that you may be locked in to a particular vendor technology which, when you consider the fast-moving landscape of technology, may be problematic,” says Sacke. “There can be a danger in purchasing based on a ‘brand approach’ without fully thinking through the ‘best fit’ of the technology to your organisational requirements. On the other hand, the ‘as a service’ model gives you the flexibility to potentially migrate between providers on shorter-term contracts; hence it’s growing attraction as an option.”

Sacke says it’s important that enterprises “don’t go looking for SD-WAN as a ‘banner ad’ technology” that will solve all network problems, apply it everywhere and expect the network to run itself – “many hours of work lie ahead to get it right”.

He adds that companies must consider the challenge landscape for the business first and then see if SD-WAN is a fit for all the estate, or part of it (many new networks rolling out are hybrids). “Find a provider who is able to blend different technologies, including SD-WAN in order to achieve your required outcome, or you could be in for an expensive period in time and cash investment and then have to do the same exercise again,” he concludes.

Joe Dilsaver, managing director at value added reseller (VAR) Aztex Solutions agrees and says due diligence is key because there is “a lot of hype in the market right now” as the market matures from early adopters to more mainstream offerings. “There are numerous VARs and manufacturers offering a plethora of solutions which seek to address this market,” Dilsaver says. “The market is in a state of flux with new products, services, prices and offerings being released on a regular basis. I have personally found that the best offerings offer both capex and opex options whilst delivering a flexible and scalable approach.”

Barker says that a high level of flexibility in a platform’s functionality is critical. “We have continued to see services migrate to the cloud over the past few years; ensuring that users are able to swiftly make changes to the network and release new functionality is essential when considering enterprise users,” he adds. “Additionally, platforms must offer high levels of security for their clients as it is likely that some content stored over a cloud-based solution will be of a sensitive nature.”

Paul Griffiths, senior director, cloud infrastructure business unit, EMEA & APJ at Riverbed Technology, says as far as SD-WAN providers go, the enterprise’s criteria should be broken down into three key considerations: will the solution enable simple, centralised management? how does it facilitate remote deployment? and what services are integrated for app and end-user experience?


“If you’re considering a software-defined network it will be because you want to reduce complexity, so ensure your SD-WAN provider delivers this,” he says. “Ask whether the solution offers one console for management of not just SD-WAN, but all the network services required to deliver app performance. Establish whether you will have a single source of truth and insights into end-to-end application and network performance, as well as end-user experience.” Griffiths adds that it is important not to overlook the value of a solution that allows you to issue plain-language instructions, based on real-world business parameters, rather than getting bogged down with network constraints, addresses and arcane commands. “An effective SD-WAN solution will enable anyone, regardless of skill level, to connect a branch location to the network just by plugging in power and data cables, with all configuration performed remotely, he continues. “If this isn’t offered by the provider you’re considering, then look elsewhere. Finally, several solutions will integrate critical network services, like end-to-end visibility, application acceleration, security, and path steering. Using a single vendor for multiple network services in this way will dramatically reduce complexity, making it a key evaluation criterion.”

Of course, signing up for a new service not only requires making the right choice, but there’s also the question of cost. If you don’t understand SD-WAN 100%, how do you know what you should be paying and just what is value for money?

Michelle Arney, senior director product marketing at Cybera says SD-WAN implementation at the edge needs to remain price-sensitive and cognisant of the fact that small footprint businesses typically have little to no onsite IT staff. “Most SD-Wan ROI models look at replacing MPLS with broadband, but many distributed enterprises switched to broadband years ago so that model doesn’t make sense,” she adds. “The key to SD-Wan Edge by an MSP is the value of the managed service, not just the technology.”

Dilsaver says the “foremost identifier” is establishing a robust ROI. “As an example: what comms links do you have and how much do they cost?” he adds. “How can a SD-WAN solution allow you to reduce these costs? I had a client who deployed MPLS leased lines to each of its branch offices to ensure QOS and security. We were able to replace said comms infrastructure with broadband and deliver the same QOS and security with a Velocloud based solution which ultimately drove down costs to the point that the solution paid for itself in no time.” He adds that an agreeable pricing model should ensure enterprises can scale in a manner that is relatively free of tie-in and offers no hidden costs. “Concepts such as licensing requirements for high availability appliances as well as vendors with both capex and opex models need to be strongly considered,” he says. “Scalability and cost should be linear in nature with no nasty surprises based on the arbitrary constructs that some vendors implement.”

Senter says an enterprise should believe it is getting value for money if the solution delivers every function expected of it. “If it offers more bandwidth, is resilient, can be controlled from a single point, offers visibility right down to the application level, takes up less staff time, reduces downtime, is flexible, is designed for cloud application performance and might be similar cost to your existing network, or might be cheaper,” he adds. “Regardless, if the SD-WAN network delivers all of the above then there’s no question that it is value for money. If some of the benefits above are missing then the value decreases. Customers have to consider both hard and soft costs associated with their network. A network’s real cost is not just connections and routers.” A term that will undoubtedly come up in negotiations is “fully managed services”, but what should that include? In other words, what should you get for your money?

As far as Dilsaver is concerned, a fully managed service should incorporate “anything and everything” that the client requires. “An effective service compliments the customer’s inherent abilities and acumen and backfills any holes which are apparent,” he says. “Some customers are highly proficient with systems but lack experience with networking. Others are generally great at first- and second-line support for users but require assistance with third line and complex technical issues that may arise. I have never seen two identical requirements in my 20 years within the industry. This is why effective managed services offerings must be modular in approach and span numerous disciplines. The proficiencies of the managed services partner and the client’s organization must be intertwined in a symbiotic fashion. That is a partnership made to last.”

A veritable smörgåsbord of models is out there and so one thing is for sure – there’s something for everyone. “There are different deployment models, ranging from do-it-yourself to fully managed services. “One model is not necessarily better than the other,” says Bakkers. “What is critical is that organisations choose a model that is aligned with their in-house resource and expertise levels, as well as capex/opex preferences.”

Kristian Thyregod, vice president and general manager of EMEA at Silver Peak says it’s important that enterprises explore a range of deployment options when considering an SD-WAN, including deployment model flexibility. “While some enterprises will opt for a DIY deployment model where their IT organisation designs, deploys and manages its own SD-WAN, others, perhaps with limited IT resources, will opt for a managed SD-WAN service approach where they turn to an MSP (managed service provider) for a turnkey deployment,” he says. “When considering a managed SD-WAN service, enterprises should require the MSP to select an underlying SD-WAN vendor with the advanced capabilities outlined above to fully realise the benefits of cost savings from efficient use of low-cost internet and wireless links, centralised control and management, network agility and speed to deployment of new sites, as well as optimised cloud connectivity.” At the end of the day, selecting the right partner is critical – so the message to enterprises is simple: just be clear about what you want.