CIO eyes digital services in SD-WAN push

In a move designed to lure customers to its new services, including a software-defined wide area network, EarthLink hired American Cancer Society CIO Jay Ferro to rebuild its back-end and front-end systems as well as improve its sales process.

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Earlier this year, Earthlink CEO Joe Eazor realized he needed a CIO to upgrade the company’s clunky legacy software and make its sales process more appealing to business customers browsing the website. Enter Jay Ferro, who led a digital transformation at the American Cancer Society (ACS) before joining EarthLink in July.

Serving in a dual role as CIO and chief product officer, Ferro will also help develop and pitch peers on EarthLink’s managed network products, including a new software-defined wide area network (SD-WAN).

"It's easy on an executive team to have insular thinking, think of yourself and then the market," Eazor tells "As a consumer of the products we provide, Jay brings a fresh perspective on what CIOs are looking for and that's who we sell to.”

Hired: CIO for application modernization, customer outreach

Ferro's hiring continues the trend of technology companies hiring CIOs to juggle back-office IT management with refining the digital services marketed to IT leaders. CEOs realize that CIOs are well-positioned, if not best-positioned, to pitch prospective customers on emerging digital solutions. Box, Workday and Okta have all hired cloud and mobile-savvy CIOs who can help shape corporate products based on customers' evolving needs.

[ Related: How auto repair chain accelerates networking with SD-WAN ]

Ferro tells he will introduce technologies to improve the sales cycle, starting from when customers engage with the company on its website, as well as order processing and delivery. Ferro also will deliver tools that generate data insights and analytics about how customers' network and applications are performing. He will also phase out legacy technologies, include AS/400 applications and multiple CRM systems, accrued from several acquisitions.

"There is still some optimization of the infrastructure and the application stack that needs to happen to enable the transformation," says Ferro, who at ACS consolidated 12 divisions and implemented a new CRM system to serve 70 million customers.

To that end, Ferro will both consume and advise customers on a crucial new SD-WAN service EarthLink launched last week. SD-WANs allow companies to set up and manage networking functionality, including VPNs, WAN optimization, VoIP and firewalls, using software to program the traffic routing typically conducted by routers and switches. "SD-WAN gives the network a brain," helping organizations better deliver both on-premises and cloud applications, Eazor says.

If you believe that then EarthLink just got a little smarter. The company last week launched its first SD-WAN service, based on technology from startup VeloCloud. The service offers customers bundles of network access with hosted voice, security services, bandwidth prioritization controls analytics and 24-7 monitoring to help optimize performance.

[ Related: IDC: SD-WAN market to hit $6B by 2020 ]

Eazor says EarthLink will distinguish its product from a crowded market that includes Viptela, Silver Peak with personalized service. EarthLink's SD-WAN Concierge includes a dedicated service manager and a team of EarthLink experts, who will work with each business to create and deploy routing and security policies based on real-time analytics and unique business requirements. EarthLink is also guaranteeing 100 percent uptime in its service-level agreement contracts, Eazor says.

Peter Girgis, CIO of Dunn-Edwards Paints, says EarthLink's SD-WAN pinpointed slow network speeds that were denigrating its point-of-sale system. One national restaurant chain, which Eazor declined to identify, found that its music-streaming service was throttling its network access, slowing payment processing.

The 'white glove' SD-WAN

Gartner analyst Ted Corbett says EarthLink's personalized “white glove” approach will appeal to enterprises that are short on staff or expertise and require high-touch support. To that end, the service has already paid dividends for some early adopters.

The SD-WAN market is still nascent, with only 2,000 paying customers, according to Gartner. "Given the size of current market adoption, we consider it early stage," says Corbett. Given the relative ease of adoption and performance benefits, Corbett says the market will blossom in the near term.

Gartner estimates spending on SD-WAN services will be in the range of $25 million to $50 million in 2016, but will double in 2017. It also predicts that through 2020 at least 30 percent of enterprises will use SD-WAN solutions for branch-office connectivity, up from less than 3 percent today.

EarthLink is consuming its own SD-WAN but that footprint will expand under Ferro as part of a hybrid cloud strategy he says will boost the company's performance.

This story, "CIO eyes digital services in SD-WAN push" was originally published by CIO.

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