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10 Ways SD-WAN Suppliers Will Try To Win Your Loyalty

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The writing is on the wall for software-defined wide area networking (SD-WAN) vendors regarding the channel.

Most of these companies need the help of partners to scale their business and stay afloat in a competitive industry. The mass entry into the market can’t last much longer. It’s crunch time.

We saw at the Channel Partners Evolution SD-WAN Thunderdome Panel that vendors have been making drastic pivots in the last year. In the same panel, one company said it has gone from mainly resellers to adding MSPs; another recently added a managed service; still another launched a channel-partner program after working with only service providers.

Some of these companies come from an entirely foreign industry to what you’re used to selling, but the current age of business technology is all about convergence. Buckle up.

As this group of suppliers pivots to the channel, they’ll first need to sell their platforms to partners. And they’re competing against one another for the partner’s attention and allegiance. That might mean solid options for partners, but the process of selection could go on indefinitely. Partners face a bombardment of marketing jargon that often says the same thing: “Sell our product because it is unique and superior, and we will have your back because we are committed to the channel.”

We recently compiled a list of 20 top SD-WAN providers offering products and services via channel partners.

How do you wade through all the chatter?

Don’t lose hope. Although there’s a pile-up of manufacturers in this space, you’ll discover key differences between each company, either in their technology or the way they distribute their technology. You know the use cases of your customers well enough to form a baseline for the type of services they need. It’s ultimately your circumstances that should determine which product is “superior.”

Dell'Oro's Shin Umeda

Dell’Oro’s Shin Umeda

“Because SD-WAN solutions have many software components, vendors are approaching the market in many ways, from one-stop shop offerings to multivendor solutions based on partnership, open interfaces and integration,” said Shin Umeda, vice president of Dell’Oro Group. “There is no right or wrong way to implement SD-WAN; many factors need to be considered beyond the basic technology.”

We reached out to analysts to get their observations of vendors in order to help you know what to expect as you pick out SD-WAN solutions going forward. Hopefully you’ll get a sense of how suppliers differ and how they’ll attempt to profit from those differences.

Throughout the fourth quarter of 2018, as part of our “In Focus” series, we are featuring a series of galleries designed to help partners grow their businesses in 2019 and beyond.

“There’s a lot of noise around SD-WAN,” Bigleaf Networks co-founder Jeff Burchett said recently. “We all have different opinions, and frankly it’s not about one of us being dramatically better than the others, but [about] you guys figuring out who’s the best fit in the right situations.”

Although marketing hype continues to confuse partners and their customers, not all vendor efforts to expand are so cacophonous. Although some companies might be all talk, you’ll find that many are making a concerted effort to put their money where their mouth is.

In the gallery below, we outline 10 tactics suppliers will employ in order to get buy-in from you, the partner.

Bridging the Gap

Alex Hart, senior vice president of strategic services for The 2112 Group, says SD-WAN creates a unique intersection between software and transport. The best vendors will acknowledge this hybrid market and reach partners that lie on both sides of it. They'll grow their position in the market by not pigeonholing their partner profile.

"Successful vendors are spending as much time engaging with traditional data-center VARs and solution providers as they are with CSPs and telco master agents — two very different worlds," Hart said. 

He says VMware, which is a prime example of an IT company tackling networking, is staying proactive following its acquisition of SD-WAN vendor VeloCloud.

"They are creating strong co-selling and co-marketing cadences between the existing VeloCloud partner ecosystem and VMware’s sales organization, while also proactively expanding the SD-WAN offerings to their legacy partner base," he said. "This is giving partners on both sides of that equation the ability to provide their customers a full data-center-to-edge value proposition.”
Marketing

Matthew Toth, president of C3 Technology Advisors, says vendors can attract partners by solving one of their biggest needs: marketing. Most partners lack developed lead generation, and their marketing efforts tend to be a painfully underfunded.

"They need the help of the SD-WAN vendors’ marketing departments in their go-to-market strategy," Toth said. "SD-WAN vendors that depend on the channel model need to deploy more channel-facing marketeers or risk losing market share to those that do."
Boots on the Ground

It might seem obvious, but the most channel-friendly vendors will devote manpower to helping partners. Funds and training and other resources are fantastic, but making an actual people available for support is an upgrade. Alex Hart credits Silver Peak for driving "an increased focus on responsiveness to partners." The company also demonstrated its commitment by adding personnel.

"The recent hiring of two seasoned executives – Michael O’Brien to run global channels, and Doug Woodley to lead the company’s enterprise sales efforts – are also proof of that commitment, as both have a strong understanding of what it takes for partners to succeed," Hart said.

Silver Peak overtook Cisco in the latest IHS Markit scoreboard and surpassed 1,000 customers this past summer.
Offering a Managed Service

Brian Washburn of Ovum says most enterprises initially seek SD-WAN with the assumption that they could run it on their own. But in many cases they’re in over their heads. They’ll need to host a centralized controller and manage a new network overlay, as well as the network underlay. That’s just mentioning a few tasks. Customer demand quickly moves to getting a managed service.

“The enterprise finds there is no strategic benefit in hosting and maintaining its own SD-WAN controller, or in managing a list of network suppliers. So it pushes those tasks back to the service provider,” said Washburn, who is the practice leader for Ovum's network transformation and cloud services. “The partner can also help backstop equipment changes and network migration, provide sound advice on configuring the new fabric for the right levels of performance and security, and monitor to adjust service levels.”
Features, Features, Features

Washburn, who writes primarily on the topic of managed service provider SD-WAN, says there is something of an arms going on between service providers. They’re stacking up new capabilities to entice partners, should their customers have a unique need. It’s imperative that service providers show their “value-add” when it comes to their managed SD-WAN service.

“Does the enterprise need hybrid networking gateways and SD-WAN gateways at key locations of the network, or embedded VNFs in its cloud that connect back to a common management portal? Some service providers offer these options,” Washburn said. “What about bundling centralized hosted firewall and security with SD-WAN gateways? What about portal views that move seamlessly between SD-WAN overlay and network underlay? Many providers have these options. Does the enterprise need a partner that automates network-layer changes in response to performance needs of the SD-WAN?”
Malleability

Shin Umeda, vice president of Dell’Oro Group, agrees that the feature set is important. But in a rapidly evolving market, partners must consider how vendors will adapt their offerings in the not-distant future. Therefore, vendors face judgement based on their “track record” of developing new features. The ability and willingness to change is crucial.

“It is important to not only identify the immediate requirements for an SD-WAN solution, but also to understand how requirements may change and whether the solution can incorporate new features to adapt,” Umeda said.

Umeda told us in an interview that for some of the vendors crowding the small market, offering SD-WAN is a matter of following the crowd rather than looking to profit.
Security

It's often the first question customers ask, and it follows that partners are going to ask about it. 

As we observed at a recent panel, no vendor will tell you they're neglecting security. Even "plug-n-play" vendors like Bigleaf Networks that don't offer their own firewall pitch with their platform on the basis of it fitting seamlessly within pre-existing security architecture. But in 2018 we've seen SD-WAN vendors announce security partner programs and integrations, and some have built their own "next-gen" firewalls.
UCaaS

Many customers see SD-WAN as primarily a tool for transporting voice and video. Expect vendors to pitch improved cloud-based communications to you as a chief benefit of this new technology. Not only that, but you'll see them packaging UCaaS and SD-WAN together, just as Windstream and Vonage are already doing. Other vendors have joined partner programs that show their compatibility with UCaaS companies like RingCentral.

The winning vendors will bring partners in on a vision that includes not just the connectivity, but the content that's connected. After all, Shine Umeda said innovators will make SD-WAN “a component of a bigger picture."
'You've Never Met Someone Like Me'

A great deal of vendors selling SD-WAN will come from outside of the networking space by the end of this year.  And they're not only brushing off their outsider status — they're embracing it. Take security provider Barracuda, which says SD-WAN is just as much about protecting your branch offices as it is about providing connectivity.

“I would never let somebody who’s just pure connectivity actually manage my security,” said Ezra Hookano, Barracuda's vice president of channels.

We noted previously that some companies from nontraditional industries are merely following their competitors. Security was the most prominent industry to move toward manufacturing its own SD-WAN, and additional markets might try to converge in 2019.
Lip Service

Perhaps this audience groans at articles that say "Company A Is Going 100% Partner" or "Company B Will Be Channel-Driven." 

There's a certain fact partners must face. No SD-WAN vendor that wants to attract partners will tell them it isn't 100 percent dedicated to them. Infovista's new channel chief told us the same thing last week.

“I’ve been in the industry a long time, and I’ve been with those vendors who say that because they think they channel wants to hear it," said John Howes, senior vice president of global channel sales. "However, when it comes to the tough decisions of actually doing business, you can work with management teams who, let’s say, are less committed than they are on the surface to maintaining that channel-centricity.”

Don't begrudge a vendor for trying to win your business. But ask the blunt questions needed to find out where you stand on the totem pole of the vendor's go-to-market strategy.

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