Is an SD-WAN managed service right for you?

Managed SD-WAN can be an appropriate solution for the enterprise, but due diligence is necessary to determine if it is the best fit.

Mark Sheard and Jack Deal Dec 07th 2018

For enterprises considering an SD-WAN solution, one of the key choices will be who will implement and manage it.

For some enterprises this is a relatively straightforward decision; for others the choice may require more deliberation. In either case, best-practice sourcing dictates that this decision be made up front – to achieve exceptional results, the sourcing strategy, approach and execution following must be tailored to the desired self-managed or fully-managed solution. 

A structured vendor-selection process and a clear route to a meaningful pilot will be important for both choosing products that align with the enterprise’s specific needs and continuing the internal team’s education. The time should be used not just for the technical beauty parade and discussion of implementation challenges, but to consider any organizational adaptation that will be required. This should include consideration of how the networking team can better align with the application teams given the promise SD-WAN offers to more optimally serve the needs of applications.

Sourcing SD-WAN is a more iterative process than it is for more mature technologies such as MPLS.  There is a strong case for a more flexible approach than the RFP of old – something that is quicker, still robust but allows you to be up and running sooner. We call this approach the “RFI+.”

Part of the approach is to use your potential solutions live to address real pain points – a meaningful pilot – which also starts to convince stakeholders throughout the business of the benefits.  Demonstrably improved performance is always valuable in re-affirming the decision to executives and business users, and, importantly, to further inform what your end-state network architecture should be.  Contract for a degree of flexibility to allow you to capitalize on your experiences with beneficial adaptation of what were your day-one plans.

If you don’t have a strong internal networking capability here’s a health warning. SD-WAN marketing promises: zero-touch set-up; centralized control and rapid reconfiguration; reduction in engineering effort; easy optimization of application traffic management enabled through smart technology and a ready repository of ready-made rules and application policies; all supported by unparalleled performance, visibility and analytics.  While to some extent all this is true, the unwary should not be seduced into thinking this means you can now take on self-management (including self-implementation). It just isn’t that simple. Understanding what you have and what you need, and executing a transition is probably beyond your collective capability without third-party help. We don’t see enterprises suddenly being able to take back control, even if it may be a downstream option to have more involvement.

The sensible path is to work to select a capable managed service provider (MSP) with whom you can work and to get someone to help you select the right MSP. The selection criteria are more extensive than just WAN transport connectivity. They extend to areas such as carefully assessing the candidate MSPs’ capabilities, their fit with your organization, gaps in the scope of what they are offering and the commercial provisions (not just headline numbers) that will influence the success of arrangements you establish.  Don’t simply fall into working with your current incumbent network MSP without at least some comparative effort and sense of competition. Alternatives could be carrier MSP offerings or more specialist entities focused on fronting the SD-WAN technology.  There are pros and cons for both.

For enterprises with networking architecture and support capabilities somewhere between the well-resourced, highly technical in-house team and the largely outsourced MSP model, things can be more difficult to navigate.  This is mainly because the range of go-forward options is increased.  Enterprises with some capability (or surrogate capability if we include those with broader outsourcing arrangements that might cover such things as application support, desk-top management, facilities, networking devices, etc.) may need to compare more alternatives. This may be direct technology selection versus assessment of the technologies that MSPs work with (this is usually limited to one or two flavors of SD-WAN per MSP). The commercial models will not be directly comparable, and the potential pitfalls of each need to be unearthed.

There can be a wider spectrum of responsibilities split between the enterprise and third parties, so the rigor required to prevent gaps and define effective boundaries increases. Understanding the service, operational and commercial impact of these responsibilities and memorializing them is a material task.  Again, this is an area that shouldn’t be left to chance – get outside help if necessary – and consider what to document throughout the process from initial selection, any bake-off effort, piloting and final commercial arrangements.

What you set up with the expression of interest and initial assessment (including commercials) will pay dividends for business-case development and final contractual close-down.  It will be important to develop a view of your end-state network architecture – constrained among other things by your networking start-point and capacity for change, ambition (risk appetite), type of business (retail, financial services, manufacturing) and culture – and, hence, what you are hoping to achieve in the medium and longer term.

In all cases, the procurement approach should start with a more exploratory effort to narrow down the choices, secure some key commitments and bounds on the commercials. Preferably, it should also maintain some competitive tension but leave things open for ongoing collaboration.  Our RFI+ approach works well, but however you term it any final decisions and commitments should ideally be informed by and subject to the pilot effort that comes from the collaboration.

Mark Sheard (Managing Director - UK) and Jack Deal (Managing Director) are advisors with TechCaliber Consulting (TC2), a global IT and networking consultancy dedicated to helping enterprise clients develop and execute technology transformation and sourcing strategies.