Searching for the best provider for SD-WAN, SASE, MPLS, content delivery network (CDN), 5G or any other network service can be a difficult, frustrating, and tedious process.\nThere are so many providers, so many options, so much confusion and possibilities for future regret. What's the best way to move forward?\nHere are a set of recommendations to help enterprise IT executives navigate every stage of the process.\nCreate an internal team\nRob Long, a partner with technology research and advisory firm ISG, suggests beginning the search by creating a stakeholder team to examine the available options and then document a clear vision and consensus strategy based on network service and performance objectives.\nBreak down silos and unite business and IT teams behind your goals in order to achieve the desired return on investment, recommends Amit Dhingra, executive vice president at NTT Network Services. "Keeping all parties on the same page will be critical to searching for the right partner that will help you evolve, manage, and improve your networks."\nEstablish a broad set of priorities\nGiven the ever-growing number of options, network service selection has grown increasingly complex. Between delivering applications over the cloud, and supporting hybrid and\/or remote work on mobile devices that require access wherever they are, enterprises need network service providers that can readily adapt to their needs.\n"Secure, dynamic, and experience-first networks are crucial for business success," says Karen Falcone, senior product director at Juniper Networks. She adds that accurately assessing network priorities is crucial for selecting the optimal network and vendor. The three top priorities should be user experience, security, and cost, Falcone says.\nShe also stresses the need for resilient security. "Network planners must introduce strong security systems and practices, such as zero-trust principles, to protect data privacy," she advises.\nBalancing security against usability requires a delicate balance because "too much middlebox interference can impede the user experience and disrupt network performance," Falcone adds.\nArun Santhanam, vice president, telco, at business and IT advisory firm Capgemini Americas advises, "Start with an exhaustive list of end-to-end use cases and outcomes that you want to accomplish for the next 12 to 36 months.\u201d\nIdentify specific technology criteria\nOne of the reasons an organization might want to engage with a service provider is the expectation that they can deliver cutting edge, cloud-based technologies that might be beyond the skill or experience level of internal staffers. Those include:\n\nAutomation: Automation has emerged as a key network feature over the past few years. Ask the vendor, for instance, if automated templating is available. "When your business needs thousands of routers to be configured and deployed quickly and correctly, templating allows you to drastically reduce human error," Falcone "With templating, the additional configuration, deployment, updating, and ongoing management of routers, services, and policies is automated and expedited."\nVisibility: An effective network service should also provide visibility that spans the entire network and allows drilling down into granular insights. Network visibility is essential for efficiently resolving everyday issues. It also allows network managers to conserve IT resources while giving team members more time to focus on long-term projects and building critical infrastructure strategies.\nScalability: Evaluate both the initial rollout as well as how the service will scale as enterprise needs grow. "Hone-in on features that can help you both speed rollout and scale your solution," Falcone\nAI: "Enterprises are increasingly looking to AI-driven network technologies to quickly troubleshoot and resolve issues," Falcone It's necessary to remember, however, that not everything presented as AI is equal. "It\u2019s important to dig into what constitutes AI in the solution you\u2019re evaluating," she says. Particularly, the tool's maturity and real-world operational performance.\n\nAnd don\u2019t simply rely on vendor promises. "Define the specific capabilities that are dependent on the network provider and test as many use cases as possible in a controlled lab environment with multiple providers to determine which is the best fit," Santhanam recommends.\nDon\u2019t rush the process, but don\u2019t dawdle either\nFor many new adopters, evaluating all of the various network platforms and services can be a bewildering, time-consuming process. The market is evolving rapidly, and providers are always offering new service plans and bundles. For some enterprises, there might be a temptation to move too quickly in order to reap the benefits, and for other companies that typically move at a slower pace, \u2018paralysis by analysis\u2019 might set in.\nKevin Koke, president of business development at telecom service provider CC3 Solutions, says the biggest mistake he sees network leaders make is rushing toward a deployment spurred by the need to replace end-of-life equipment, suddenly available funding, or some other type of organization-rooted factor, like a merger or acquisition. "More than ever, planning technology purchases well in advance of when it needs to be deployed is best," he says.\nLong concurs. He says the enterprise should set out a detailed and well-thought-out list of preferences, allowing the provider to come back with a proposed solution that allows the vendor to put their best foot forward.\nBut the process doesn\u2019t end there. "Once a solution is offered for consideration, the enterprise client can adjust their requirements over a few rounds to match what the market will offer." Each round of iteration, he notes, allows the provider to adapt and fine-tune their proposal based on the client\u2019s increasing specificity of what will work best.\nOn the other hand, with so many available network choices, it's easy to get bogged down in research. Koke advises simplifying matters by setting criteria that limit the choices. \u00a0"Choose between private or public, shared or dedicated, wired or wireless \u2013 all filter-in to how the network can be designed and what equipment is needed."\nLong warns against performing too much upfront research before final objectives have been firmly established. He advises that new adopters pinpoint the number and types of endpoints they will need to serve, and then determine what kind of connectivity and hardware will be needed to support each location.\nOne practical approach is a two-step process. First, narrow the field to a small, carefully selected pool of providers that appear to closely match their scope, goals, and budget. Then, conduct the more intensive evaluation with that small group of finalists.\nBuild a working relationship\nWhen working with a network service provider, be sure to leverage the power of collaboration. "The confidence, credibility, and rapport established between your stakeholders and the provider will prove invaluable and facilitate more rational decision-making," Long says.\nWhile it\u2019s important to have your list of criteria, goals and outcomes, it\u2019s also important to give the service provider an opportunity to showcase their capabilities. "It provides a deeper level of confidence and understanding between the enterprise client and the provider early in the sourcing process," Long says. \u201cIt also opens the door to powerful technologies and capabilities that would probably go unnoticed had the enterprise simply issued a narrowly defined RFP,\u201d he says.\nWhen creating a network operations strategy, it's also important to decide on the exact role the service provider will play. Does it make sense for your IT team to manage the service, or would you prefer the service provider to handle management duties? Perhaps a hybrid approach would be the best fit.\nAlso, make sure the service provider prioritizes digital transformation and focuses on meeting the demands of today\u2019s rapidly evolving networks, Falcone advises. "A great service provider will recommend the most innovative solutions and technologies that meet the needs of your network."\nNegotiate with the service provider\nThere's no denying that cost is a major consideration when hunting for an optimal network technology. Pricing varies widely, depending on speed, scope, and many other factors. "The best way to negotiate price levels is to pay for the capability you use rather than for your perceived need," Santhanam advises. "Avoid long-term contracts," he adds.\nThe two elements most critical to a successful negotiation are understanding where the market is headed in terms of price and service levels, and identifying alternative options, says Joe Andrews, a vice president at CC3 Solutions. "Key to every negotiation is the ability to walk away," he adds.\nCreate a transition plan for the long term\nA common mistake is overlooking or downplaying the need to anticipate long-term network requirements. "While a particular technology may be fine for your current network needs, you have to consider whether it will keep up with increasing network complexity and a growing infrastructure," Falcone says.\nOnce a network service provider has been selected, it\u2019s vitally important to nail down a transition plan. "Our research indicates that most relationships that start without a robust and reasonable transition plan end within the initial [service] term," Long says.\nThe transition plan should lay out\u00a0 the responsibilities of both parties. It should cover when the new service starts, the preparations the enterprise needs to make, the metrics used to measure performance and cost, service level agreements, management responsibilities, reports.\nAnd on the relationship side of the equation, it should identify the point people who will stay in contact to make sure both parties are satisfied with the relationship over time.