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SD-WAN and the Channel: 4 Keys to Success

Rick BerensFor over a decade, distributed enterprises of all sizes have relied on MPLS services as the “go-to” option for reliable, predictable connectivity. Lately, however, demands for uncompromised uptime and more bandwidth to serve centrally hosted services, cloud applications and real-time IP-based communications have exposed MPLS’ limitations. Many customers now consider it inflexible, expensive and a chokepoint to advancing their IT and business goals.

If your clients aren’t asking about alternatives to their MPLS services, they likely will. Depending on their needs, there are a number of lower-cost, higher-bandwidth alternatives. But if nothing less than a secure, private network with quality-of-service assurances will do, a software-defined WAN should be part of the discussion.

Why SD-WAN? Because with this technology, you can create a multipath WAN overlay that is transport-agnostic. That is, it can use any combination of connections available to an organization in a given geographic area — MPLS, broadband, fiber, cable, DSL, 4G, whatever. This is a huge benefit, especially for companies with branch offices or manufacturing facilities in rural areas. Jim Hill, director of IT at Admiral Beverage, one of the nation’s largest Pepsi distributors, has felt that pain.

“I have sites that have really bad Internet connections,” Hill says. “When they build a warehouse, they don’t think about Internet. They think of low cost and access to a freeway.”

A multipath WAN overlay is controlled by software and provides greater resiliency than a single-carrier option, as well as more efficiency and intelligent traffic flow control versus dynamic routing protocols or VPN backup scenarios. And, it gives managed service providers and network administrators monitoring and reporting capabilities they didn’t know were possible.

Industry experts put the size of the SD-WAN market between $6 billion and $7.5 billion by 2020. Andrew Lerner, research director at Gartner, predicts that by the end of 2019, 30 percent of enterprises will use SD-WAN products in their branches, up from less than 1 percent today. And, carriers are mapping out SD-WAN strategies. By the end of 2017, Gartner expects at least five global carriers to have incorporated SD-WAN as a key component of their managed network service designs, up from zero at present (though Verizon is working on it).

As an agent, this means you have an opportunity to run ahead of the pack with your own offering, combining your portfolio of carrier partnerships with a technology that ties it all together for the customer.

The time for channel adoption of SD-WAN isn’t somewhere down the road. It’s now.

4 Keys to SD-WAN Success

Tackling the WAN sounds scary. Some agents and MSPs may feel they lack the training or experience to take on a project with so many moving parts. Some partner business models don’t involve installing hardware or designing traffic flows for complex environments. These are understandable concerns, but with the right guidance and support, the transition to SD-WAN can be a painless experience for everyone involved.

A smooth deployment is the key to success — customers won’t tolerate outages. So how do you achieve seamless switchover?

I’ll discuss that, but first a word of warning about SD-WAN deployments that stress “zero-touch” implementations. Outside of the very simplest environments, a cookie-cutter approach will short-change the customer by limiting the potential for optimization and control, thereby reducing the overall value of the solution and potentially leading to bigger issues over time. It’s easy to overlook important details that are specific to the customer’s network in an attempt to over-simplify and rush deployment. I know, because we’re often called in after a “zero touch” implementation has failed. My company, Ecessa, uses a proven SD-WAN deployment process that is project-management-driven and focuses on properly setting expectations and identifying verifiable goals. SD-WAN rollouts demand in-depth information gathering, risk management, clear communication and thorough documentation.

There’s an old adage that “failing to plan is planning to fail.” Don’t prove the proverb right. Instead, plan and succeed together.

Deployment Planning

The first step in the process is to create a deployment plan that documents the client’s current struggles and goals, as well as listing:

  • The number of locations to be included in the initial deployment;
  • The tests and validations that must be achieved before anyone declares the project a success; and
  • A realistic assessment of how SD WAN will address those goals and struggles.

Once all parties agree to the plan, hold a kickoff meeting to discuss the deployment process. Focus on update meeting frequency; roles and responsibilities; unique aspects of the network to be addressed upfront to prevent surprises later; and action items, action owners and timeframe, to provide accountability during the project.

Update meetings are the checkpoints that will drive communication and alignment. Only once you have this framework in place should you proceed with deployment, a process that includes validation of interoperability, passive network monitoring and easy rollback options in case something unexpected presents itself.

Once a plan is in place, SD-WAN deployments advance through the following stages:

  • Stage 1 – Baseline: Install equipment in translucent/bridge mode for five business days to demonstrate network interoperability, troubleshoot connectivity issues and gather baseline network performance data.
  • Stage 2 – Go Live: Turn on/up the key features of the SD-WAN solution to enable network management; run in the live network to gather new network-performance data and create a performance scorecard.
  • Stage 3 – Optimize: Review feature performance, make adjustments based on customer feedback and lock down device configurations; update performance scorecard and review with client. Define plans for next site deployments.

This is a field-tested process that results in a minimally disruptive deployment, yields predictable results and builds confidence along the way. Once the initial deployment is validated, templates for additional locations can be replicated and modified as needed, ensuring fast and smooth installations.

Note that “phased” does not mean “slow.” Drive the project to the end zone in the shortest time possible, making sure milestones are met and success acknowledged by all parties. For example, in a project I worked on with Delaware Valley Floral Group, we had regular check-ins where we presented data to validate that the system was working right. We didn’t move to the next phase until the customer was satisfied with performance.

SD-WAN is rapidly becoming mainstream. It is positioned to shake up the once rigid WAN environment and make enterprises – and the channel – look at connectivity in a whole new way. Imagine offering your clients a network without the limitations of the past: Use any facility, any bandwidth, in any location, with better resiliency options, better monitoring and reporting. Sound too good to be true? It’s real, and when deployed correctly, it’s able to deliver consistently on its promise.

Rick Berens has a passion for understanding the intricacies of complex enterprise networks and helping partners and customers develop solutions that solve existing needs and prepare networks for growth. His degree in Computer Networking from Dunwoody College of Technology and nearly a decade with Ecessa Corporation have made Rick an expert in network design, configuration and troubleshooting. In his current role as system architect at Ecessa, he ensures successful SD-WAN deployments for clients worldwide.


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