Technology is not the main obstacle for Cloud Networking transformation

Two weeks ago, I had the pleasure to attend the SD-WAN and SASE summit run by Upperside Conferences. It will be no surprise to anyone that this was a digital event. Still, it was well run and had the benefit of every presentation being available for on-demand watching right after the talk which helped when at-home interruptions meant I missed the start of a session!

One presentation that caught my eye was by Anne-Gaelle Santos, Senior Manager of SD-WAN at BT Global. She was arguing that in a rush to discuss the exciting new capabilities of all the latest cloud networking solution, we have forgotten an important point about digital transformation.  Namely that most of the challenges that people face when changing to solutions like SD-WAN/SASE are not based on the technical capabilities of the new solution at all.

Anne-Gaelle made a strong argument that many of the issues plaguing Cloud Networking are the same that have been plaguing digital transformations for years. Those of existing hardware compatibility, budget, training, C-level enthusiasm and understanding, have been regular occurrences that have not gone away. In fact, in some cases, they are exacerbated by the nature of some of the new cloud networking platforms.

Many of the market leaders in the SD-WAN space require proprietary equipment to run their solutions. I can think of at least two vendors that will only be able to run your new SD-WAN network if you deploy a proprietary device at each endpoint. These are fully managed network service offerings and are not guaranteed to be compatible with existing hardware. Even those that work with white label deployments require a certain level or type of device to incorporate them into the new network, which may cause compatibility issues with existing network technology deployed in your sites.

Now while the proponents of new technology will tell you about the brilliant new functionality of their systems, and the new platforms are impressive. It belies the fact that a large proportion of network equipment in circulation is either a) not due to be replaced for a few years, or b) is being bought second hand to reduce costs.

I will admit I did not grasp the full extent of the second-hand telecoms market until I attended the ASCDI’s Disposition event earlier this year. There I heard from many the companies for whom second-hand telecoms, computer, and network equipment is their livelihood. I came to understand that for many companies in need of networking, despite the attractiveness of the new solutions, the old workhorses remain efficiently priced and up to the task, especially if you buy them second hand. 

I also began to think about the sheer complexity of a large deployment and the individual needs of specific sites. Whilst some locations may need the latest in security and networking, many sites on a corporate network do not. I think not enough attention is paid to this patchwork story of networking where SD-WAN and SASE will have to become part of the broader whole if they can, which will present a problem to companies that have sprung up solely to tackle these new technologies. After all, “put this in where you need it” vs “replace all your existing kit with this” is an entirely different sales proposition. If you find someone at the right time to do a rip and replace, they may be grateful for the simplification, but more than likely the network manager still must justify the purchases they made four years ago, so your sales strategy will fall on deaf ears.

Yet this story goes far beyond the fact that outdated hardware and the latest and greatest do not always play nice. Ultimately it is a story of people. It is IT and Network support teams reluctant to embrace new technologies because they have not received the proper training and support to operate them. Most employees do not want any disruption to their workday and are resistant to the idea of change unless there are substantial issues. Many business leaders have not stayed current with the latest trends or realised the business use cases of cloud networking yet and how it can impact their bottom line.

I think as an industry, we need to do more to accommodate gradual change and older technologies, even if it means a slower initial uptake of your solution or device. We also need to do more to bring employees from the previous generation of technology into the new fold, both at the management and technical levels. Just like with digital transformation, the message needs to be that transformation does not equal disruption. There needs to be a narrative of continuity, stability and progression that leads people to the future of these technologies without the idea of a daunting leaping that leaves everything behind. 

Looking for more thoughts from Cavell in the Networking space? You can download all recordings from our recent Cloud Networking Summit for free on our analysis page, via the button below.

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Matthew Townend
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