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5 trends for SD-WAN managed services

Enterprises interested in managed SD-WAN must evaluate essential considerations. Top trends include hybrid operations, vendor consolidation and AI-driven networking.

Enterprises consume software-defined WAN in many ways, but managed services remain the most popular method as adoption continues. According to an April 2023 Enterprise Management Associates report that surveyed 313 IT professionals, the percentage of enterprises with managed SD-WAN increased from 62% in 2020 to more than 66% in 2023.

"One thing we've seen over the years is a continuing shift toward consuming software-defined WAN as a managed service," said Shamus McGillicuddy, vice president of research at EMA.

With managed SD-WAN services, organizations outsource management and operations to service providers. But, even if enterprises decide to operate SD-WAN via third-party management, it's helpful for them to stay updated about certain trends to increase SD-WAN success.

Five managed SD-WAN trends organizations should consider include the following:

  1. SD-WAN drivers.
  2. SD-WAN capabilities.
  3. Vendor consolidation.
  4. Hybrid operations.
  5. AI-driven networking.

1. Evaluate top SD-WAN drivers

EMA found that managed SD-WAN is the preferred method of consumption for a number of reasons. Network assurance ranked as the top reason among nearly 50% of respondents who chose managed SD-WAN. Enterprises and MSPs create service-level agreements that define requirements for quality of service, availability and optimal performance, better ensuring network assurance.

Other factors included cost savings, existing relationships with current service providers and easier integration with other managed services, such as unified communications as a service and security services. Ease of integration can also help facilitate the transition to Secure Access Service Edge (SASE), McGillicuddy said.

Enterprises with managed SD-WAN reported greater success in migrating to SASE. Unified managed services for SD-WAN and security also help simplify overall management. According to McGillicuddy, organizations that used a single MSP for SD-WAN and cloud-delivered network security reported less difficulty when moving to SASE.

2. Evaluate top SD-WAN capabilities

Enterprises should also decide which SD-WAN features are most important to their organizations, considering how the capabilities can improve network performance and fix network issues, McGillicuddy said. Almost 40% of respondents reported both bandwidth issues and latency as some of the top application performance issues in their WANs.

"You need a solution that can attack both problems," McGillicuddy said. "SD-WAN connectivity should minimize overhead of overlay tunnels and route traffic as efficiently as possible."

The top SD-WAN capabilities organizations said were important included the following:

  • Hybrid connectivity.
  • Integrated network security.
  • Native network observability.
  • Automated site-to-site connectivity.

3. Consider vendor consolidation

Enterprises with multivendor SD-WAN should also consider vendor consolidation, McGillicuddy said. Approximately 43% of respondents said they use at least two vendors for managed SD-WAN services.

"It's shockingly high but not completely surprising because it's a pretty mature market at this point," McGillicuddy said. "A lot of people have been using SD-WAN for a long time, which means a lot of things happen to introduce vendor complexity."

Businesses use multiple SD-WAN vendors for many reasons, including the following:

  • Diverse sites or multiple offices that function as independent business units.
  • M&A businesses that use different vendors.
  • Plans to migrate to a different SD-WAN vendor.

Regardless of the reason, McGillicuddy said organizations with multiple SD-WAN vendors typically find it difficult to use them all.

"People who told us they're multivendor are less likely to feel successful with their SD-WAN efforts," he said. Some issues associated with multivendor SD-WAN include inconsistent security, skills gaps between various vendors and high operational costs. McGillicuddy recommended organizations consider a consolidated vendor approach to ease SD-WAN challenges.

4. Consider hybrid operations as a best practice

EMA found that most enterprises typically opt for hybrid SD-WAN operations, in which they use a mix of managed and co-managed services. Almost 58% of organizations said they prefer hybrid operations, while around 25% of organizations said they want to completely outsource management to an MSP. Another 15% said their organization manages SD-WAN internally, and less than 3% said they were still deciding.

"Managed SD-WAN is the clear preference for the enterprise world, but they also don't want to completely outsource operations," McGillicuddy said. "They see a world where they want a hybridized approach where they can share responsibility with their managed service provider."

In addition, McGillicuddy said organizations that follow a hybrid operations approach experience more success with their SD-WAN implementations.

5. Embrace AI-driven networking

In a separate EMA report from May 2023 that surveyed 250 IT professionals, 51% of respondents said the use of AI-driven networking strategies improved their WAN -- and, more specifically, SD-WAN -- operations. An approximate 69% of respondents said end-user experience in their networks improved after implementing AI-driven networking services.

Other benefits of AI-driven networking include the following:

  • Network optimization.
  • Network agility.
  • Improved security.
  • Network resiliency.
  • Operational efficiency.

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