The Rise of Multi-vendor for SD-WAN Service providers – Thoughts from the SD-WAN Summit Paris 2019

This week sees me on the road again, this time to France for the SD-WAN Summit 2019.
This three-day event for those that didn’t attend was a fairly deep dive into SD-WAN with multiple vendors and service providers in attendance all talking about real challenges and issues that they have encountered during their work.

One trend that isn’t new, but was definitely confirmed for me at the show, was the rise of multi-vendor at service providers. Many service providers (especially those that listen to our advice) will do a reasonably robust vendor selection process before entering the SD-WAN market.

 

This is important because:

Not all SD-WAN solutions are made the same,
or have the same functionality. If you view the chart below, also included in our recent introduction to SD-WAN report. You’ll see that we segment vendors based on the legacy technology they offered before everything came under the banner of SD-WAN. These companies due to history and expertise are often better at providing those services under the banner of SD-WAN.

Size matters when looking at SD-WAN solutions and deployment models. Some solutions are designed for the needs of large enterprises, and will not scale down as well to the SMB, and mid-market range both in terms of attractive price points, but also in terms of capabilities (having too many), flexibility, and suitability for the network/industry that it is being deployed in.

Market segments have different needs. An SPs value to the market is its intimate knowledge of the market segments it serves. The same is true for SD-WAN. Any company that is hoping to enter the SD-WAN market, needs to segment the market that it targets. What verticals does it serve? What are its connectivity, ERP and regulatory requirements? 

What next? – things go wrong
Once you have completed this process you arrive at the vendor that you believe best suits the market you are trying to achieve. Hopefully it goes well, and if it does then you have happy customers and you start to roll out digital transformation. However, this is where most SPs start to run into problems and turning to multi-vendor, usually because their vendor selection was not robust enough and there are issues with deployments at a technology level rather than a customer level. The tools just aren’t fit for the job, and you either have to invest a lot of people-hours fixing it, or look for a solution that will suit the purpose. 

What next? – the customers have other ideas
One consistent piece of feedback we have heard from SPs both at our own show – the Cloud Comms Summit US – and this SD-WAN Summit, is that the vendors are doing a good marketing job on technology and sometimes customers have heard a of a specific solution and ask you to deploy that. One vendor that will remain unnamed actually boasted to me that a large enterprise deployment of 10,000+ sites actually demanded their service provider learn how to and deploy their technology despite the service provider not offering it previously. This may seem unfair, however, with a contract that large it was probably worth the service provider onboarding a new vendor to make the company happy and I’m sure despite the initial challenges a good amount of money was made from that deal.

However, this is a reality that a SP will have to face in this space. Customers may have other ideas. You can handle this on a sales arm, as long as your sales team is properly educated about the differences between solutions and can articulate your vendor choice and why it suits their needs, but you have to be able to respond positively and explain why what you have chosen works better for their business, rather than explaining why the other one doesn’t. As it is easier to advocate for your own choice, rather than fight against the marketing engines of VMWare, Cisco, Nokia, etc. 

Sometimes the shoe doesn’t fit
It can be easy to think of outfitting a customer with a network as selling clothes to a large company. Some technologies are like jumpers, it doesn’t really matter how well it fits, it will keep you warm as long as you can get it on, and as long as its big (broad) enough it will fit. Some technologies are like shoes, if they don’t fit, they will never work properly, and always cause blisters.

Sometimes the solution that suits the larger sites at a company isn’t the solution that works for smaller sites at a company. In these situations, some SPs are finding that it makes more sense to deploy different networking approaches, and to try and find a way to make those two technologies work together.

Now we have multiple vendors – but how do we manage this
One of the central themes of the SD-WAN Summit was Automation and Orchestration, which was discussed in tandem with Multi-Vendor.

Susan White from Netcracker talked to us about using automation to aggregate and orchestrate networks from a SP side. They see a need for their solution and for service providers to have a single portal that can aggregate data and network analytics from multiple SD-WAN vendor products that you offer into one window.

Manish Aggarwal from Altran, spoke on a similar topic, focused less on the service side and more on how you can enable automated network provisioning for large distributed SD-WAN deployments, especially those including multi-vendor network functions. 

Closing thoughts
It seems that we are arriving at a place where as a service provider multi-vendor approaches are becoming common, and the technology is evolving to help manage these networks. However, as a service provider that hasn’t entered the SD-WAN market in Europe yet, you shouldn’t find this prospect daunting.

If you follow the process of proper market segmentation and vendor selection and choose the right vendor initially you will be able to serve the majority of your customers with a solution that meets their needs. Especially if that need is just to enhance the performance of a specific network/application like cloud voice.

When you reach the point that you need to adopt additional solutions, either through vendor positioning with clients (who then demand specific vendors be deployed), or by deciding you need a second solution to serve another segment of your customer base, you will have to also consider how you are managing your messaging. You need to make sure you are delivering the right marketing materials to the right segments, and be clear which of your services takes the lead in public messaging so that customers know to come to you for that service.

The final thing to ponder, is that each new vendor/platform will require more training by the vendor, and there will need to be specialised teams in both pre-sales, delivery and support to take care of any issues that may arise. There is support available for this training, but the skills gap may take time to close.

As you can see there was lots of discussion about the implication of multi-vendor and how to handle it at the recent event. Coupled with additional input from what I have been hearing in the market there is a lot to consider about approaching multi-vendor from both a strategy, and technology perspective. I hope this has given you some things to think about and, of course, if you want to discuss this further please get in touch.

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