An IT Managers view - how to buy managed SD WAN services?
SD WAN is usually assembled together as a single-vendor platform consisting of edge devices placed at each location with centralised orchestration and management. Many SD WAN vendors will suggest SD WAN is a self managed DIY technology. This kind of marketing is misleading, software WAN services require expertise across setup and configuration with attention given to security and application performance. We've added key MSP data points to our IT Managers SD WAN buyers framework offering insights into how SD WAN can be purchased as a hybrid of DIY and managed. The feature comparison elements have been added to the latest release and will be updated on a regular basis.
While you can purchase and deploy SD WAN from beginning to end on your own, it can also be purchased as a managed service, which alleviates your organisation from many of the low-level tasks required to support the service. When you contract with a Managed Services Provider (MSP) to deploy and maintain your SD WAN environment, there are many different aspects you must consider to ensure your needs are met and to have a successful deployment.
How to build a list and evaluate SD WAN providers?
1. Consider why your business is interested in SD WAN, is it cost, resiliency or reporting for example.
2. Is your existing WAN contract ending, what will software WAN services bring to your business.
3. Many implementations are self managed, does your business have the expertise?
4. Do you have the ability to write an RFP based around the elements of an SD WAN service?
5. Delivery and project planning together with your own resources may add to costs.
6. Be ware of marketing, SDN is an agnostic technology including MPLS, VPLS, IPSec VPN and so on.
You will need to examine what your expectations are for the service and what you are looking for in an MSP. What kinds of business problems are you trying to solve by migrating to a managed SD WAN service? Once your business needs and goals are determined, you can begin the Request for Proposal (RFP) process to narrow down the selection of MSPs that are willing to bid on your project. After the RFP process ends and an MSP is chosen, it is important to establish a good relationship with them to ensure the deployment occurs as planned and that their end of the contract is held up. Managed WAN services are most successful when all involved stakeholders are satisfied with the ongoing operations.
Determine business needs and goals
Like all major projects, a successful managed SD WAN service begins with carefully determining your business needs. Selecting and deploying an SD WAN service can be a major undertaking, especially if tens, hundreds, or even more physical locations are involved. There are several different problems that can be solved with WAN migration, depending on what your existing provider environment looks like. An MSP can suggest business goals to you, but it is ultimately up to your organisation to carefully determine what your forward path is.
The most common business goals associated with SD WAN are improving network resiliency and reducing the ongoing costs associated with more traditional and expensive WAN links. SD WAN platforms aim to deliver on both of these goals by using multiple lower-cost network transports, such as broadband (most typically cable and DSL), and wireless LTE. Most capabilities are considered “transport agnostic” in that they don’t really care what the actual connection type is, as long as it is consumable via regular Ethernet handoff. If you have locations that can only receive an older serial-based service such as a E1 connection (rare in the UK now), you can still use SD WAN if you place a terminating router in front of the SD WAN edge device.
SD WAN is also typically associated with hardware upgrades at all of your participating locations, though there are exceptions to this. Some existing routers are SD WAN-capable with a software upgrade. Other software defined platforms can be delivered in virtualised form, in which case you just need a server or even simply a small computer with multiple network interfaces present at the location. Even if your organisation doesn’t need all of the promises touted by the major SD WAN providers, it may simply be time for a hardware refresh of all your WAN routers, which is the perfect time to be forward-thinking and migrate to a platform prepared for the future.
Other business considerations
Another business consideration associated with any type of WAN environment is cost management. If you need to replace all of the routers at each of your locations with new SD WAN edge devices, choosing an MSP instead of self-deployment may allow your business to switch to an operational expenditure (OPEX) model where the edge devices are included as part of the service. With this model, edge device hardware upgrades are also frequently included. Cost management includes acquisition, management, and billing for WAN links. This may not be a concern for smaller organisations, but when you have a hundred or more circuits in your WAN, just managing the billing alone can be a full-time job! Partnering with an MSP to do this work for you alleviates a huge organisational burden.
One more aspect to consider regarding business needs is the technical skill level of your staff, along with who should be responsible for different portions of the managed SD WAN service. Depending on your organisation, this can be a full spectrum from wanting the MSP to handle absolutely everything on one end to desiring as much control as possible on the other end. Some MSPs are not willing to give you full control over the managed SD WAN solution, so you must carefully evaluate if this is a necessity for your business.
If you have very technically adept staff employed, having more control might be very important. For example, if all changes must be implemented by the MSP, this can cause delays when emergency policy modification arise. Conversely, if most of your staff do not yet have the experience required to fully manage a network autonomously, it may be in your best interest to partner with an MSP that will design and control more aspects of your SD WAN system.
Keep in mind that operating an SD WAN is a little different than a traditional network, due to the built-in automations and orchestration. This means it is fairly easy to quickly make disastrous changes that affect all of your locations if your staff doesn’t fully understand the ramifications of what they are doing. MSPs are not perfect either; they make mistakes like anybody else. However, if the MSP retains full control, the responsibility lies with them if things go wrong.
The RFP and selection process
After your business goals and needs are carefully determined, it is time to draft an RFP. The RFP needs to contain what you are looking for in both an MSP as well as the SD WAN service itself. This includes items such as the level of management and responsibility you desire, along with technical requirements. When creating an RFP, you have a decision to make regarding the level of details and constraints to include. The more specific and constrictive your RFP is, the fewer MSPs you are likely to attract. Like any successful partnership, there will necessarily be some give and take on both sides. This is why it is critical to prioritise your requirements in case you need to concede on anything.
On the technical side, you may have hard requirements, such as the WAN must support VPN multicast in order to work harmoniously with an existing software application deployed on your WAN that relies on it. Many Software WAN platforms do not yet support multicast. This may limit the number of MSPs available, because not all MSPs support all SD WAN platforms. Be careful of MSP sales teams that promise a particular feature will be available at a future date. Even if a rollout date of the particular feature is on the vendor’s roadmap, it is all too easy for that to change, which could put your deployment in jeopardy.
On the business and operational side, you may desire to have an MSP completely handle the physical deployment of the edge devices for all of your locations. Some MSPs may simply ship the pre-configured devices to your locations and expect your local staff to install the equipment themselves. If your staff are not very technically-inclined, which is extremely common, they might be unwilling or unable to install the required equipment themselves. You may have to factor in paying a technician to visit your locations to install the SD WAN edges. Other MSPs include this service as part of the contract. Still other MSPs may send a technician to physically install the SD WAN equipment and connect it to the new WAN links, but are forbidden from actually connecting the edge to your existing equipment. These are important details that should be written into your final contract.
You will also want to include other important items like Service Level Agreements (SLAs). What is the MSP’s escalation process when things go wrong? This becomes critically important during your actual deployment. You also need to understand what level of capabilities you are looking for in an SD WAN, such as the kinds of telemetry and reporting available, whether the capability supports any kind of Role-Based Access (RBAC). An MSP may propose a different SD WAN platform than you were expecting, and you need to be sure the product supports everything you care about from an organisational standpoint.
After the RFP has been drafted, it is time to distribute it to various MSPs. Your organisation may do its own distribution, or it can partner with another business to handle that aspect. Outsourcing this part of the process can help with objectively assessing different MSPs since the outsourced company is paid to have your organisation’s best interests in mind during the process. RFPs are distributed with deadlines, and any interested MSPs will need to respond before the deadline. The MSPs that responded to the RFP will most likely wish to produce a demo or presentation of both themselves and the SD WAN platform they have chosen to meet your requirements with.
Be aware that just because an MSP responded to your RFP, it does not mean they will actually meet all of your requirements. Having a legal team involved in this part of the process may be a necessity. The contract will most likely specify a commit term, with a specific amount of money that must be spent toward the contract, typically over a 3-year term. Be sure you include a downturn clause to account for loss of business. You may still have to pay a certain amount to meet the commit amount of the contract, even if a large number of your locations close. Your contract should also include specific remediation actions. If you feel the MSP is not holding up their end of the deal, what actions can you take to rectify the situation? This will be an absolute necessity both during and after the actual deployment.
Deployment and ongoing operations
The MSP has been chosen and the contract has been signed. Now it is time to carefully plan the rollout of the VPN service. This primarily involves scheduling, since installing the SD WAN service will most like cause temporary interruptions at each of the locations during the install, though with careful planning the downtime can be kept to a minimum. It is only during the deployment phase and ongoing operations afterward that you will truly experience how your MSP functions.
This is when you may find your expectations of the MSP do not necessarily meet reality. There may be soft misunderstandings between the MSP and your organisation’s technical or operational leadership. A good MSP will work with you to resolve these issues, or reach mutually-acceptable alternatives, so long as it fits within the contract.
You may once again need to bring legal services into the mix if you feel the MSP is not providing acceptable services as defined by the contract. A common example is rectifying the situation if application performance and latency requirements are not met after deployment. For instance, the MSP may have provisioned a WAN link at one of your locations that is substandard for your requirements. If defined in the contract, the MSP may be forced to upgrade to a better-quality connection at their expense. These financial decisions are important when buying a managed SD WAN service.
Success with your managed SD WAN service
Depending on the size of your business and its operational and technical needs, purchasing a managed WAN service can be a huge undertaking. Careful consideration of what you are looking for in an SD WAN platform along with what you want your MSP to handle is paramount to both a successful deployment and a mutually-beneficial partnership. The RFP you produce needs to outline the details of your business requirements and desires.
Your chosen MSP must be your ally in every phase of the SD WAN rollout, from initial planning through physical deployment and into the final phase of ongoing operations and maintenance. Contracts are always a key piece of the relationship, and you must ensure you have a path of escalation and remediation in your chosen MSP, and by association, SD WAN platform vendor. Unexpected issues will arise in any major deployment, and it is important that your MSP will work with you to ensure the ultimate success in your new managed software service.
About Jedadiah Casey
Senior Network Engineer for 5 years General IT/sysadmin experience 10 years prior Bachelor of Science degree in Information Systems Certifications: Cisco CCNP Routing & Switching, CCDP Network Design, CCNA Routing & Switching, CCNA Wireless, CCNA Industrial, CCNA Service Provider Certified Wireless Network Professional CWNA VMware VCP-DCV Juniper JNCIA Working toward Cisco CCIE R&S, first lab attempt was June 2018.