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SD-WAN: How channel can make net gains

How prepared are channel partners to take advantage of the rapidly growing SD-WAN market?

This article can also be found in the Premium Editorial Download: MicroScope: MicroScope: The growing SD-WAN opportunity

The SD-WAN (software-defined wide area network) market is one of the fastest-growing segments of the network infrastructure market, with IDC reporting global SD-WAN infrastructure revenues growing rapidly – enjoying a compound annual growth rate of 30.8% – and expected to reach $5.25bn by 2023. 

Rohit Mehra, IDC vice-president for Network Infrastructure, says: “SD-WAN continues to be one of the fastest-growing segments of the network infrastructure market.”

The growth is driven by a variety of factors. Traditional enterprise WANs are failing to meet the needs of modern digital businesses, particularly in supporting software-as-a-service (SaaS) apps and multicloud and hybrid cloud usage. Enterprises are also becoming more interested in easier management of multiple connection types across their WAN to improve application performance and user experience.

Mehra adds: “Combined with the rapid embrace of SD-WAN by leading communications service providers globally, these trends continue to drive deployments of SD-WAN, providing enterprises with dynamic management of hybrid WAN connections and the ability to guarantee high levels of quality of service on a per-application basis.”

So there is no argument that SD-WAN could provide a significant opportunity, but how prepared are channel partners to deliver, implement and support the technology for their customers? And what can vendors and distributors do to help partners exploit the opportunities that SD-WAN brings?

In answer to the first question, it depends who you ask. Mark Hardy, director cloud networking at Citrix, says there is “a mixture of ability when it comes to partners and SD-WAN”. Some are actively promoting migration to SD-WAN, he says, but others “are not so forward-thinking, or have other reasons not to pursue this course – seemingly depending on the demand from customers, perceived value of change or existing strategy”.

It doesn’t help that many businesses may like the idea and benefits of SD-WAN and see intrinsic value in it, but they are not convinced enough to move immediately. Another drag on the move to SD-WAN is that many enterprise companies are locked into long-term contracts with their current WAN provider and that can “delay sales considerably”, says Hardy.

“If they want to promote the uptake of SD-WAN effectively, partners need to articulate its value in order to drive sales; highlighting cost savings, resiliency in the branch and new service adoption,” he adds. “Partners can also look at new options, such as offering SD-WAN managed services, which – although less straightforward – can bring considerable benefits and provide a faster and more efficient path to migration.”

Because SD-WAN is a relatively new market, he says, the channel doesn’t seem to be universally prepared for it. “Understanding is sporadic and it is up to the vendor community to promote their products and services, and offer enablement and education on key advantages, so they can be amplified by the channel. This will take training and encouragement from the vendors.”

Sean Sullivan, head of Europe, Middle East and Africa (EMEA) channel at Zscaler, says SD-WAN preparedness “differs from partner to partner”, adding: “Some very large system integrators and service providers have been preparing for SD-WAN for years, and are very well positioned to execute on this breakout to internet using SD-WAN. They can implement and have support ready to go.”

But there are other large service providers and regional VARs “who are entering the market late and playing catch-up”, he says. “That’s not to say they won’t get there, rather that they’re starting from a less mature position as others in implementing, supporting and delivering positive results today.”

“Vendors and the channel are waking up to the growth opportunities of SD-WAN”

Wayne Mason, Nuvias

Maturity is “very important when considering an SD-WAN implementation”, says Sullivan, because SD-WAN “can’t be viewed on its own”. He points out: “It’s part of a bigger strategic approach alongside increased ‘cloudification’. It’s a big architectural change across hardware and software, and organisations need to look at it from the perspective of all aspects of the IT ecosystem.”

In the security sphere, where Zscaler operates, this means ensuring that security systems are in place when SD-WAN is used as the tunnelling mechanism to reach the internet and cloud-based applications are as robust as they were on their older infrastructure.

Paul Mercina, director of product management at ParkPlace Technologies, agrees with Hardy that the level of preparation within the channel varies widely. “Some resellers have already selected the vendor technologies for their segment of the customer market and built compelling packages,” he says. “Others are still struggling with the underlying challenges associated with SD-WAN.”

One of the biggest problems, says Mercina, is that “SD-WAN inherently combines two specialties – networking/IT and security”. He adds: “This is not to say that networking pros are unaware of, or uninterested, in security, but in an SD-WAN model, security upskilling is often required.”

Hubert da Costa, general manager and senior vice-president EMEA at Cybera, says partners “are still going through a learning curve in terms of what SD-WAN actually is, so many are far from ready to deliver, implement and support the solution”. It doesn’t help that there are “very few deployed customers of any significant size to demonstrate the power of SD-WAN and highlight what a differentiating solution it is to clients and partners who are ready to deploy”, he adds.

But Paul Higley, vice-president for northern Europe at Riverbed Technology, believes the scale of the SD-WAN opportunity means partners “are starting to embrace the technology more as they discover the many benefits it can offer”. He adds: “The good news is that we are seeing more channel partners awakening to the SD-WAN opportunity, which ultimately means better delivery, implementation and support for customers.”

Potential for SMEs

Wayne Mason, sales director of advanced networking at Nuvias, opts to focus on the potential for small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). He says SD-WAN has become established as a “powerful solution, replacing costly MPLS networks for large enterprises, such as connecting branch offices and datacentres over wide geographical areas – but as SMEs also recognise the benefits of SD-WAN, vendors and the channel are waking up to the growth opportunities”.

Mason says the channel has a “vital role to play” in accelerating the roll-out of SD-WAN to the SME and mid-market market because it is essentially a high-volume, lower-value business. This has led some SD-WAN vendors to “migrate to SME-friendly as-a-service offerings designed to be quick to roll out, flexible and simple to maintain”, he says.

But moving to a managed services provider model for traditional resellers is a significant challenge that requires new knowledge, skills, support and resources. “This is where distribution can help bridge the gap between the vendor and the reseller or MSP,” says Mason. “Education is at the heart of this migration, to help the channel get up to speed and be able to become the SD-WAN trusted partner of choice for their customers.”

The progression in managed services technology means that dashboards can provide an instant snapshot of the network’s status and services can be configured and managed via an app, “something pretty much unheard of a year ago”, says Mason. “This means that for a channel partner, the process of adopting, deploying and configuring an SD-WAN service for their customers can be rapid and simple.”

Mason says the as-a-service option is making SD-WAN technology accessible and broadening interest in it. Along with a wide range of industries and public sector organisations, Nuvias has found that more than 60% of those showing an interest in SD-WAN across EMEA “are SMEs, even including traditionally low-resource establishments like primary schools”, he says.

“We are seeing more channel partners awakening to the SD-WAN opportunity”

Paul Higley, Riverbed Technology

David Park, Fortinet UK & Ireland channel director, builds on Mercina’s point about the network and security requirements for SD-WAN solutions by arguing that the need to provide comprehensive security and management is “one of the main challenges for the channel”. He says partners need to be well-versed in core networking skills at the heart of SD-WAN deployments, “as well as in the issues surrounding the security transformation that must go hand on hand with an organisation’s digital transformation”.

Park warns that the rapid growth of SD-WAN has led to an increasing number of vendors jumping into the space with new devices and services, “many of which are only partially baked”. He adds: “To complicate matters further, there is little guidance available to help organisations select, deploy and manage an SD-WAN solution that meets their current and future needs.”

Park stresses the fact that partners play “a key role in helping customers in their journey towards the adoption of SD-WAN”, but they need to help customers understand that SD-WAN is “not a silver bullet to fix everything – not all organisations and not all applications are suited to SD-WAN”.

ParkPlace Technologies’ Mercina agrees, saying: “The variety of SD-WAN offerings has rapidly diversified, with pure-play SD-WAN companies having success, stalwart networking companies like Cisco acquiring their way to SD-WAN dominance, and telcos bringing out products to help protect against losses of MPLS revenues.”

Focus by channel partners

With all this activity, says Mercina, “there is something to say for focus by channel partners, selecting one or two SD-WAN lines, getting to know them in-depth, and offering a service-driven solution to customers, potentially with helpful offerings built on available APIs [application programming interfaces] with VFN”.

Vendors and distributors have a significant role to play in how prepared partners might be to push SD-WAN technology. Dave Tracey, EMEA channel sales manager at Aptum Technologies, cites the results of a survey of 300 UK-based IT decision-makers which found they were hamstrung by concerns around a lack of skills to implement SD-WAN and a lack of understanding around the technology.

“It is clear that vendors and distributors must work together to help partners leverage the huge opportunities that SD-WAN brings by educating businesses on the technology benefits and dispelling the misconceptions that plague the market,” says Tracey. “This lack of understanding that is hindering adoption represents an opportunity for channel and vendors to sit down with customers and thoroughly educate them on SD-WAN’s capabilities to help them determine if it’s a right fit for their business model.”

Citrix’s Hardy believes vendors “can help by delivering technical training to enhance product knowledge” and that vendors and distributors “need to make hardware and software products available to partners to use in their labs or under proof-of-concept conditions to ensure comfort and confidence”.

Another way of highlighting the business value and benefits of SD-WAN is through selling and positioning training sessions, says Hardy, “including how it fits with the partner’s other avenues of business, so that the solution is complementary to what the partner is already promoting”.

“There is no one-size-fits-all approach to SD-WAN”

Dave Hawkins, KCOM

Vendors can also encourage partners interested in adopting new roles in the SD-WAN market, such as managed service provision, to “help the channel morph itself by offering alternative purchasing models that partners can adopt to change their course”, he adds.

Riverbed’s Higley says the partner community is divided into those “who are already beginning to reap the benefits of SD-WAN and those who are only now discovering the market opportunity in response to their customers who are requesting it”.

He believes it is vendors’ responsibility to educate partners so they can reap the benefits of SD-WAN. “We can show the more up-to-speed partners good use cases, demonstrate the benefits SD-WAN offers to their customers, and that the technology is integral to future-proofing their business,” says Higley. “For those companies at the start of their journey, our role is to help bring them up to speed as quickly as possible.”

Higley says it is important distributors and partners “step up in equal measure when delivering training and awareness around SD-WAN – providing guidance on marketing and demand generation are other core areas where we can help our partners get the most from their investment”.

Jason Wells, EMEA vice-president and general manager at Cradlepoint, says: “Vendors need to collaborate to support the channel because SD-WAN is made up of multiple components.” For example, an SD-WAN vendor could be the orchestrator of legacy WAN connections and the enabler of the new 4G/LTE/5G broadband and fibre alternatives to connecting offices to each other and to cloud applications.

“This multi-vendor requirement allows for previously competitive vendors and distributors to work together to service these new customer needs,” says Wells. “Success is all about collaboration now.”

Ongoing support required

Dave Hawkins, head of channel sales at KCOM, says: “The best thing a vendor can do is to recognise that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to SD-WAN and partners will need ongoing support to provide tailored, bespoke solutions to their customers.”

Hawkins suggests that enabling economy of scale on licensing and hardware will allow partners to “maximise return on investment and pass value on to the customer”. Vendors can also provide design services and consultancy “to ensure a thorough and robust SD-WAN implementation for the customer”, he says.

Hawkins adds: “Establishing best-practice deployments can reduce early life issues. Vendors that offer templated designs will reduce the need for partners to make any retrospective changes to the network. Partners will also benefit from sales training to help them identify leads and upskilling and outsourcing opportunities will enhance their offerings for customers.”

Summing up, ParkPlace Technologies’ Mercina says: “SD-WAN is challenging the channel to up its support and consultancy game, but also offering exceptional rewards to channel partners capable of transitioning to the more service-driven approach to networking and security.”

Next Steps

SD-WAN industry growth opens partner opportunities in 2021

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