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Visibility plays critical role in a successful SD-WAN deployment

Dec 07, 20187 mins
Network Management SoftwareNetworkingSD-WAN

LiveAction’s president and CEO, Brooks Borcherding, explains how network visibility can overcome some of the challenges associated with migrating to an SD-WAN.

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Credit: NicoElNino / Getty Images

The rise of SD-WANs has been well documented by every analyst firm that covers network technology. I have the market growing from $1.0 billion in 2017 to over $9.5 billion in 2022, indicating the market is about to go through an accelerated phase of growth. Given SD-WANs can help save money and improve network agility, it seems like a no-brainer to evolve to an SD-WAN.

However, the path to an SD-WAN isn’t easy. There are a lot of factors to be considered, including the use of broadband, how to optimize the links, network architecture, and the impact of moving the on-premises infrastructure out to the cloud. If anything is missed, application performance could be severely degraded, which would negate the return on investment of the project.

This got me thinking about the role of visibility in preparing for and the ongoing management of an SD-WAN. Recently, I had the opportunity to talk with Brooks Borcherding, president and CEO of network management company LiveAction, about the importance of visibility.


Can you please share some of the more common challenges associated with migrating to an SD-WAN?

Borcherding: Well that’s a tricky question, as the list of challenges is seemingly unique for each customer. Network planners need to consider which sites to migrate, their adoption of hybrid cloud services, which service providers to use, SaaS performance, application response time, which users will be involved, and how will their experience change? Also, some thought has to be given to whether the business wants to continue using physical appliances or should they move to virtual or some sort of hybrid?

Then there’s the challenge of which vendor to use or if they should simply buy it as a service. In the U.S. alone, there are over 40 vendors offering SD-WAN solutions along with robust offerings from every large service provider. How does one evaluate all of these? Clearly, the list of issues is daunting, making something as basic as where to start a tough decision. I’ve talked to companies where the weight of all these decisions has paralyzed them, and they put the SD-WAN deployment on hold.

Can you describe the pre-deployment phase and how visibility can help?

Borcherding: We refer to the pre-deployment phase as “Day 0.” Before making any decisions, a baseline should be taken of the current performance. Without knowing where you are starting, it’s hard to measure the change and prove the results. In this phase, network engineers should inventory and evaluate the current state, including devices, users, applications, and paths.

brooks borcherding LiveAction

Brooks Borcherding, president and CEO, LiveAction

Some thought should be given to how SD-WANs will interoperate with the current infrastructure and how the customers will manage a hybrid state during the transition. Regardless of whether a small branch or large campus is being considered, a firm grasp on how those locations are connected today and will connect in the future, particularly if there is already existing infrastructure that can support a migration to SD-WAN. For example, Cisco’s SD-WAN can now run on more than 1 million existing ISR routers.

Also, there needs to be some attention given to transport. Is the plan to stick with MPLS and augment it with broadband? Or perhaps transition to mostly broadband WAN? What is the potential cost savings and what kind of impact, if any, will that have on users? Is the organization using cloud services and how do those get incorporated into the deployment?

At Day 0, visibility can be used to get a complete baseline of the network before the SD-WAN is deployed. This enables the organization to understand existing capabilities, what the norm is, what applications are running, the number of sites connected, service providers used, and whether they’re meeting their SLAs. Visibility in this phase is about getting a complete picture so teams understand how to optimize the infrastructure for the business.

How about the deployment phase of an SD-WAN?

Borcherding: We refer to this as Day 1, … and yes, the final phase is Day 2! With Day 1, the goal should be to validate that the deployment performs as expected as quickly as possible following the cut-over. We advise our customers to start with a small subset of sites where they can measure success and become acquainted with the nuances of the SD-WAN vendor’s solutions. This is where our visual analytics give customers an immediate visual verification that the intended policies are being followed by the SD-WAN controller and that application performance is meeting expectations.

Unfortunately, the Hawthorne Affect is often reversed in the world of IT and users believe any change will have a negative outcome. Therefore, the networking team needs to be prepared to show the pre- and post-customer performance to validate the success of the transition. And, of course, customers need to assume that any transition will require tuning to optimize performance. Once the pilot sites have converted successfully, then the customer is prepared to move forward with the remainder of the transition. The learnings achieved during the Day 1 phase are significant to ensure success for the broader implementation.

After that’s done, we move on to the ongoing management phase. How does visibility help here?

Borcherding: Well, there’s really two separate priorities for ongoing management in Day 2. First, yes ongoing management is critical. What’s tricky with SD-WAN is that SD-WAN environments are not “set and forget.” The whole premise of SD-WAN is that the SD-WAN controllers are making continuous policy decisions based on the current state of the network with dynamic path selection for all applications. This is what enables customers to recognize the cost savings based on the reduction of their MPLS “fixed” networks, but it means you need to continuously monitor the environments and catch policy exceptions or degraded application performance quickly. This is where the value of real-time visual analytics comes through. A platform like LiveNX helps answer really tough questions like, “Why did the SD-WAN controller change that routing decision?”

Second, and not to be too technical, but Day 2 should be thought of as more than ongoing management. That’s important, but so is continuous optimization of network performance. What’s required here goes far beyond SD-WAN monitoring. Holistic visibility of both existing and newly deployed infrastructure is a must.

Most businesses aren’t going to roll out an SD-WAN as a big bang. It’s more likely the deployment will be lengthy to minimize business risk. As this happens, changes will occur and those need to be understood. Also, SD-WAN technology doesn’t live in isolation. Instead, it interoperates with other parts of the network. Having knowledge of how that integration is happening, what impact it’s having, and being able to manage it to maintain performance levels is a must.

Visibility plays an important role with Day 2, as the day-to-day monitoring and alerting is crucial to understanding the ongoing operational impact of the SD-WAN. Visibility enables critical performance levels to be monitored as deployments are scaled out. This helps with proactive alerting, troubleshooting and policy optimization.

Thanks, any final words?

Borcherding: Yes, it’s important to understand that the move to an SD-WAN cannot put user experience at risk or overburden the IT team. If this happens, all the ROI will be eliminated. Visibility across the lifecycle can help plot a successful journey to SD-WANs. Remember, if you measure twice, you’ll only need to cut once.


Zeus Kerravala is the founder and principal analyst with ZK Research, and provides a mix of tactical advice to help his clients in the current business climate and long-term strategic advice. Kerravala provides research and advice to end-user IT and network managers, vendors of IT hardware, software and services and the financial community looking to invest in the companies that he covers.

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