SD-WAN Selection: It’s What You Don’t Know That Can Hurt You

Recently, my wife and I were visiting some neighbors and the topic of cellphones came up. My wife’s friend, we’ll call her Jane, was thinking about buying a new phone. When she remembered that I work in IT she asked for my advice.  (Because working in network infrastructure makes you an expert on cell phones and computing issues, naturally.) 

We chatted briefly. I asked her about why she wanted a phone, what she hoped to do with it. What became quickly obvious to herm and I think to anyone who’s looked to purchase a new phone, is if you’re not thinking about phones all the time, asking the right questions can be very, very difficult. 

We accumulate an enormous amount of latent knowledge by specializing in a field. By latent or indigenous knowledge, I mean knowledge that’s you’ve picked up over the years in your domain that’s become so intuitive, so immediate, it’s difficult to grasp by someone new coming into the field. It’s the kind of knowledge that allows the experienced physician to diagnose an illness missed by first-year residents or for a detective to pick up on a missed clue at a crime scene. It’s knowledge born from experience, which in the IT arena, allows for rapid problem diagnosis, which at times, might seem almost magical to the novice but in fact comes from seeing hundreds of similar cases and projects. 

In short, what the newbie sees as a mess of questions and problems to the expert is obvious.

The newbie doesn’t know what he or she doesn’t know. The expert knows.  

From Smartphones to SD-WANs

And if you thought smartphone selection was challenging just try picking an SD-WAN. There are dozens of vendors in the market. Some are appliances, other services. Some are session-based; others are packet-based. And does any of that really matter? In some cases, yes, and in other cases, no.

Not only do vendors have differences but how they’re sold also varies. Some resellers and telcos will disable certain features, others won’t. Some will include them in base quotes, others mention them as add-ons. Picking up on these differences is easy, sure, but only if you know where to look. 

And that’s just in the SD-WAN selection, a very small piece of the larger WAN transformation project. Once you’ve picked those devices you need to deploy them and deployment involves significant field expertise to know the right sequence of steps in each region of the world to ensure on-time project delivery. 

How will you handle circuit provisioning and orders in foreign countries? Should you even be ordering circuits yourself? One customer of mine wanted circuit redundancy at a factory in Mexico. They were going to order dual fibers but we advised against it. We knew that in Mexico people will dig without permits or knowing what is in the ground and sever fibers. What’s more with dual fibers they’d still only have a single point of entry into the building creating a single point of failure. 

We advised they consider microwave instead. It worked out to be far less expensive than fiber and could be installed in a week. But that doesn’t mean microwave is always the right approach. At another customer of mine, we deliberately discouraged microwave because the site lacked line-of-sight to the antennae, and in another case, with line-of-sight, we still discouraged microwave because of obstructions in the Fresnel zone. 

Buying SD-WAN Means Knowing People As Well

Unlike many other networking plays, SD-WAN directly impacts security and other IT groups. As such, you not only need to bone up on SD-WAN details you need to know your security infrastructure well.  Some SD-WAN appliances have firewalls built-in, others don’t. Even when firewalls are built-in you need to understand their limitations and how vendors address those limitations through their partner architectures. What will the implications be for your operations if they partners? What will it do for acquisition costs? These are things you need to answer. 

In the past, networking purchases were almost purely networking related. Sure, security teams had to validate that equipment was secure and the company was reputable. But their involvement was limited. Not so with SD-WAN. To push through an SD-WAN decision you’ll need to work closely with your security team. All of which requires more than just good people skills. It involves the experience of crossing cross-functional IT decisions to understand what points are critical — and what isn’t.

Like any complicated purchasing decision, engaging with someone who lives-and-breathes the SD-WAN area can help. It lets you know what you don’t know. And even when you think you know the area it provides key decision validation. 

Not unlike a phone. And what phone did Jane end up buying? Not sure. I referred her to an expert. Liz at the local cellphone store.

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