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How to choose a managed services provider for SD-WAN

With so many managed services providers offering SD-WAN, it can be time-consuming to narrow it down to the most viable options. Here are some factors to evaluate.

Even though software-defined WAN was initially developed as a way to radically simplify WAN management for enterprise...

IT staff, it is also proving to be a potent technology for managed services providers to use in delivering services. When the merits of managed SD-WAN appeal to an organization because it expects to have a large number of last-mile providers to manage, a quick review of the market will show that nearly every managed network service provider either has or will soon have an SD-WAN offering.

Choosing from a variety of managed services providers requires close attention to your own company's strategies and plans as much as to theirs. Here are a few key concerns to consider when choosing a managed services provider for SD-WAN.

Last-mile management: Operational, administrative or both

Managed SD-WAN services appeal to many enterprises, since they take the sting out of casting a wider net for last-mile connectivity. It's important then to make sure the service providers offer the level of management you want. Minimally, they need to manage the technical side of things, like provisioning links, monitoring services on those links, opening tickets when there are issues and working with support staff to resolve the problems.

Ideally, a managed services provider will also handle the administrative side of the service. This includes dealing with finding providers for new locations, setting contract terms, monitoring and consolidating billing, handling billing disputes, and getting service-level event compensations.

Plans for network functions virtualization

If your plans for the network require a more flexible delivery model and even faster delivery of new services, network functions virtualization (NFV) is likely on your mind. As another level of virtualization, NFV allows a network service to be supplied not by a specialized, single-purpose -- and intrinsically single-vendor -- appliance, but by a box that also delivers other network services, like a next-generation firewall or an intrusion detection system. NFV could even allow users to quickly swap platforms, say, from Fortinet to Palo Alto Networks firewalls, or from Viptela SD-WAN to Versa Networks.

Although providers typically have only one SD-WAN virtualized network function in mind initially, most do plan to have a broader portfolio over time, as well as adjacent networking, security and monitoring functions.

The usual suspects: SLAs, geography, ecosystems, relationships

If you aren't satisfied with the conventional services you currently get, jumping into the brave new world of SD-WAN with the same provider is probably a bad idea.

Of course, as with any network service provider decision, it is critical to understand the following points:

  • How flexibly does the managed services provider define service-level guarantees, and how well do they meet them? For example, do they parallel the service-level agreements   embodied in application policies that are at the heart of many SD-WAN systems?
  • Where can they deliver services directly, and where do they use partners to deliver services? How strong and long-lived are those partnerships?
  • Is this service provider already one of your providers?

SD-WAN offers service providers a significant opportunity to work together in providing last-mile connectivity. Among other benefits, both partners can expand their respective service areas as they become both a provider and consumer of last-mile services. At the same time, that reciprocity creates incentives for both partners to deliver reliable services; an outage at provider A would hurt the managed SD-WAN SLA of provider B, and vice versa. 

The enterprise's relationship with its existing service providers is the most important one to consider, however. If you aren't satisfied with your conventional services, jumping into the brave new world of SD-WAN with the same provider is probably a bad idea. On the other hand, if a favorite provider is moving into SD-WAN, it deserves special consideration as a potential managed services provider for SD-WAN.

Using a new vendor or old, an NFV-driven or conventional appliance-based option, managed SD-WAN will turn out to be the right option for a lot of organizations -- as long as they take the time to select their managed services provider carefully.

This was last published in November 2017

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