I know what you’re thinking. If you want an SD-WAN that’s easy to design, deliver, and deploy go to the people more experienced than anyone at delivering managed services, the carriers.

There’s a certain logic there, I grant you. But my experience in working with carriers for more than a decade deploying MPLS says that SD-WAN services are vastly different.

Carriers might know how to size an MPLS circuit. They might be able to package the tried-and-true technologies in a way they can be consumed by traditional enterprises.  But when it comes to delivering new services, like SD-WAN, carriers are often as much at a loss as you.

The only difference: you’re paying carriers to be the experts

Recently, the IT team at one of my customers evaluated SD-WAN services for its global network. The team preferred  an independent, secure SD-WAN provider who had tightly integrated advanced security into SD-WAN. It would have given them SD-WAN with the ability to revamp their security when ready in the future. Very powerful.

The offering was solid based on our Proof of Concept (POC) and pricing was even better than the solution they eventually selected. The problem? An executive was more “comfortable” with an established provider and insisted on  pursuing an SD-WAN service from one of the major carriers. The team invited the carrier for a meeting.

Alarms should have triggered immediately. The carrier’s sales team couldn’t answer some of the most basic questions about SD-WAN or their security appliances. The sales team brought in another team who misstated my customer’s requirements, proposing  a secure web gateway (SWG) to supplement the SD-WAN and its integrated firewall. Apparently, the initial intake had been poorly executed; the team failed to communicate the proper customer requirements to the new group. This required a complete rehash of our introductory meeting. Strike 1.

Eventually, we reached the  POC stage. But then the carrier sales engineers couldn’t configure the SD-WAN appliances properly. They worked on  the issue for a week until bringing in the appliance vendor’s sales engineer. He solved the problem in an hour. Strike 2.

That’s better though than another one of my clients. They struggled to get to the POC  running. The carrier team said told them that only two- to three-week window would be needed to get rolling, but my client soon learned that  in fact 90 days would be needed to receive the hardware for the POC. Apparently, miscommunication again was the issue. The sales team forgot to provide  the necessary configuration information to the SD-WAN product group responsible for shipping the hardware. Strike 3.

And if three strikes isn’t enough, how about this. Carriers need time to receive production equipment from their suppliers.  At least eight weeks is needed to restock inventory, the product manager at one major carrier told me. A large order from another customer can delay your shipment and deployment forcing you to keep paying for MPLS at your locations. For one customer of mine expecting to save $5 million a year by reducing MPLS spend, an eight-week delay would mean paying $750,000 in MPLS and management costs alone.

All of which brings me to the conclusion that the carrier service model is broken. Constructing a service from third-party appliances leaves carriers at the mercy of their suppliers. The core technical  expertise sits outside of the organization limiting their ability to add new features. Licensing costs force carriers to charge a premium for SD-WAN. Both hit on attributes critical to today’s business —  agility and cost.

It’s not that the model can’t work. It just means the organization has to be nimble like a startup with the internal processes designed to delight enterprise and price accordingly. The provider needs to know the products being sold and have done the kind of tight integration to make their offering seamless. The appliance better be sized right to handle all traffic regardless of enabled features. And if appliance capacity becomes an issue, the hardware upgrades better be part of the service.  

But getting such a service means more than just repackaging a few appliances. It requires the right organizational DNA, one that can rapidly adapt to organizational needs. In short, one that’s not very carrier-like.

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