When evaluating SD-WAN, look beyond the features table

It's easy to think that you should select an SD-WAN technology bases on a list of features. But there are many other factors to consider as you "peel the onion."

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Like many IT products, SD-WAN products can sound insanely alike. Sit through presentations and read through the literature and then ask yourself what’s the practical difference between each vendor’s implementation? It can be difficult question to answer even for people in the business of answering those questions.

A common approach for an initial cut in an evaluation process is to reduce the product list by focusing on features. By creating a table of specific product specifications, assigning a weighted scoring, many of my customer have come up with a score and by extension a tool for eliminating some products from their selection process.

Such an approach while valuable in some respects, is insufficient even for an initial cut. There are too many elements to a purchase that are not measured by a features table. Or, there might be important unfamiliar features that you forget to include in the table.

What we need to get at is value of a product not just its features. Value is that relationship between the functionality of the product and the price. Functionality includes the features, but it also involves the experience using, managing and deploying the product. Those are points not easily quantified by seasoned professionals let alone inexperienced evaluators. Today, there can be multiple service providers offering the same SD-WAN product, but they might have different competencies in installing and supporting that product.

Often it’s the alignment of value with your needs that makes for the right product. We’ve all seen products so laden with features that the features you really need are tucked away under some arcane menu. There’s an elegance to providing just enough functionality. When one of my clients described the “Cato firewall as and the simplest firewall he’s ever configured” that conveys far more about Cato SD-WAN than just checking off the “firewall” row on some features table.

Usability extends to other areas of SD-WANs. Every SD-WAN vendor promises “plug ‘n play” operation. They point to zero-touch provisioning (ZTP) as their proof point. But all too often i’ve found SD-WAN configuration to be far from pain free. You need to wade through windows of checkboxes and choice, for example, to properly configure the policies that will enable ZTP. The experience can be vastly different than the features.

None of this matters, though, if pricing isn’t right. It’s ironic, really. Pricing should be the easiest to quantify. It’s a metric after all. But few SD-WAN vendors want to disclose their pricing. The perceived competitive advantage of keeping pricing private is too great. Factoring pricing into any stage of product selection, though, is critical for a even a partial understanding of the product’s value.

A Rolls Royce will look much better on paper than Ford Focus until you consider the price. Some SD-WAN providers — such as Viptela (now Cisco) — provide incredibly comprehensive analytics packages but those packages may not be included in the typical quotation, since they add to the price of the product. Understanding exactly what you’ll get at which price is essential.

So the next time you go looking for product, look past the features table, see beyond the marketing hype and get to what matters most — the product’s value to your organization.

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