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Taming SD-WAN

Published: 11 May 2020

SD-WAN is not a revolutionary technology, rather evolutionary. It replaces some hardware functions within a network with a more flexible software approach. It is an important part of future networks and one that UC providers will need to understand and embrace as the market develops. And with nearly every business now relying on voice and video calling over the internet, the network has become increasingly vital.

UC is great when you have good bandwidth, but as other network traffic starts to compete for that bandwidth, voice and video communications fail to perform, and users will notice immediately that something has gone wrong. Providers need to be able to respond efficiently by having a good understanding of how the infrastructure is being used, and how it’s coping with that load, either with UC in isolation or when everything is running at the same time.

SD-WAN is certainly an opportunity for UC providers to improve visibility as well as enhance and prioritise cloud applications, because better visibility both helps them deliver a better service, and reassures their customers. But it needs to be managed effectively if they are to deliver the services that customers expect.

Where are the services?

Unfortunately, customers have become increasingly wary of their service providers who have made promises about a managed service to them, but then delivered a stack of products and left them alone. This is not a good experience for the customer and their visceral reaction is behind much of SD-WAN’s success because it promises to put the power into the customers’ hands. Making it easy for them to see and manage their own applications and networks with greater control and at lower costs is highly appealing, especially for smaller enterprises that are heading down the SD-WAN route.

Through our work with UK and European service providers, we are seeing a different story with larger enterprise customers. These customers have tried running their SD-WAN in-house, but are now returning to their providers asking them to take back the management of their networks and services. The enterprises have decided that they don’t want the cost and complication of employing technical specialists to manage everything in-house.

This presents a major dilemma for providers. The early adopters among them had already taken the difficult decision to select the best SD-WAN vendor for their organisation, only for customers to come to them with a request for a different vendor. It takes a considerable amount of time and money to become proficient on one SD-WAN service, and it’s frustrating to find that it is not the one your customers’ want. If it’s a big customer, you have no choice but to support another SD-WAN vendor, and your workload goes up.

What do service providers need?

Currently, SD-WAN product sets tend to be designed for enterprises and not for service providers. A vendor’s SD-WAN portal is focused only on that vendor’s own technology – there’s no option to manage other vendors, so the provider ends up with multiple tools. In addition, the APIs which underpin most SD-WAN software make it hard to scale a big production environment. They’re a single point of failure, are often not well documented, and change rapidly as vendors pile on functionality and fix bugs in this rather chaotic market. For a large service provider, managing hundreds or thousands of customers through this sort of interface can be like trying to paint the interior of your house by reaching through the letterbox.

In summary, service providers have a very specific set of requirements to ensure they can support multiple customers, and this is very different to an enterprise environment. For starters, providers will not be able to jump from one SD-WAN portal to another when servicing customers, they must be able to standardise on a single system to achieve an operational view. They need management systems which scale, and which support their unique operating environment.

Most importantly, providers need to be confident that the underlying network to the SD-WAN and their collaboration tools is working effectively. Having clear network visibility and smarter automation is vital in order to flag up issues as they are occurring, with customisable maintenance alerts across all networks and applications. All these elements are vital within the architecture of the system.

The opportunity

UC service providers are facing the possibility of having to support multiple SD-WAN vendors whilst still delivering real value to their customers. And regardless of how clever the SD-WAN environment is, how seamlessly it juggles applications across different paths and carriers, everything still depends on the underlying connectivity. Without the network, nothing works.

Those service providers that can be open and share easy-to-understand reports with their customers, but with control over what each customer can see, have a huge opportunity. Delivering high quality services is a major differentiator and the winners are those that can prove to their customers that service levels are being delivered with full visibility of all end to end services. They just have to understand the SD-WAN beast, and work with it rather than be scared of it.

Author: Richard Thomas

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As featured in UC Today on 11 May 2020

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