SD-WANs: Too complicated for engineers?

When selecting a SD-WAN technology provider, make sure the partner doing the configuration and installation is experienced. The partner needs to be vetted as much as the technology.

SD-WANs: Too complicated for engineers?
Gerd Altmann via Pixabay (CC0 Public Domain)

Usability, it seems, is so often an afterthought with enterprise technologies. Vendors look to capitalize on a market opportunity, and if the product isn’t the easiest used, well, so be it. Once deployed, they come back with enhancements to make their products easier to use and manage. Perhaps that’s because they gain the missing insights lacking when the product was first launched, or maybe it’s just because vendors realize usability is so critical.

With SD-WANs, we’ve certainly improved the usability of our WANs. We now have a centralized view of our networks. We have eliminated the application-by-application, device-by-device configurations that made deployments so difficult. Instead, SD-WANs make healthy use of policies for configuring applications, business rules and even remote hardware configurations. With Zero-Touch Provisioning, SD-WAN nodes need only to be connected to a network and turned on, then the devices pull those policies down, configuring themselves. Yes, we’ve come a long way since early router rollouts.

+ Also on Network World: IT execs tout benefits of SD-WAN +

But with all of the improvements made to WAN configuration and deployment, there’s one area SD-WANs haven't improved—people. You’ll still need someone with the right skills to roll out your WAN. 

Network design skills are still needed to understand how the WAN should be architected and policies configured. Implementation skills are needed to ensure a smooth configuration experience. This mean finding a partner who pays attention to the details, such as getting your subnets, applications and priorities configured correctly.   

The SD-WAN usability challenge

Unfortunately, too many "SD-WAN engineers" fail in this department. Two weeks ago, for example, I got a call from a retail company. The company has 120 locations, 12 of which were configured in a Velocloud implementation. Their engineer was seeing no performance improvement with the SD-WAN. In fact, their point-of-sale database was timing out—and the user was fed up. He wanted our help replacing the vendor.

Now, I’ve used Velocloud in the past, and it’s a solid solution. (As are other leading brands, by the way.) The network shouldn’t have performed the way they described under normal configuration.

We held a remote session and reviewed his configuration. After some probing and analysis, which I’ll conveniently skip over, we found the cause of his problem: The Velocloud nodes had been misconfigured. This configuration error was slowing the retailer's traffic instead of optimizing it! And the one who made that configuration: the partner who sold Velocloud. It was clearly the partner that had little experience.  

VeloCloud shared with me that they have made a number of changes with their partner program over the last few months based on direct and indirect feedback from a few mid-sized customers such as this one. This includes a recently introduced partner training and qualification program that has a deep emphasis on design, deployment, support, maintenance and assessment.

VeloCloud also acknowledged that to keep up with demand early on, they brought on partners they later discovered were not staffed or equipped to properly deploy and support customers. In some cases where a partner does not meet their expectations, they part ways with that partner. That's good news in my eyes.

This isn't an isolated case. This story has played out with all the SD-WAN technology players in one way or another. Two months before that, I was called in to fix a POC being run by an architectural glass company. The firm has a location in the Midwest and headquarters in Washington state. They were testing the WAN optimization capabilities of Silver Peak’s Unity SD-WAN to send CAD drawings faster between offices. 

It’s a great use of WAN optimization, and I know for a fact that Silver Peak normally performs well in that kind of application. Yet when the customer reached out to me, the Unity performance was terrible. I mean there was zero improvement. The reason? The Silver Peak engineer forgot to check the box to turn on WAN optimization!

You can help matters by keeping good documentation about your network. Granted, that’s challenging for many SMEs where networks grew organically. View your SD-WAN deployment as a chance to get up to speed. Documentation takes time, but its needed.

Partner requirements

But vendors can also help by making sure partners are qualified to support their products. It’s not enough to simply certify partners. Certification demands qualified support for the product, including training programs with hands-on testing. Some vendors, such as Silver Peak, do this already, but not everyone. 

Just because someone claims to sell a particular SD-WAN solution doesn’t mean they are qualified to manage your deployment. Be sure to confirm the number of previous installations implemented by them. Ask about the scale of those deployments. Ideally, call the customers and pay attention to their installation experience. Remember, the underlying technology may be perfect for your requirements, but the partner that installs it is as important as the technology.

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