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Cutting through to the SD-WAN opportunity

There is plenty of hype around software defined networking and plenty of opportunities for those channel partners that get past that and provide solid solutions

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There has been a lot of buzz around SD-WAN in recent months. And little wonder when you look at the growth predictions. According to IDC, global SD-WAN infrastructure and services revenues are growing at a rapid pace and expected to reach $8bn by 2021. The figure for EMEA is predicted to hit $2.4bn. The growth is being driven by digital transformation, the rise in cloud-based SaaS business applications and a wider acceptance of SDN.

Further reinforcing the IDC estimates, Cisco’s latest Visual Networking Index forecasts that “SD-WAN traffic will grow at a CAGR of 37 percent compared to 3 percent for traditional MPLS-based WAN. SD-WAN will increase 5-fold and will be 29 percent of WAN traffic by 2022”.

Rohit Mehra, vice president, network infrastructure at IDC, argues that interest in SD-WAN is growing because traditional WANs are not built for the cloud and are poorly suited to the security requirements. “SD-WAN is not a solution in search of a problem,” he says, adding that it “builds on hybrid WAN to offer a more complete solution”.

Dr Klaus Gheri, VP and general manager of network security at Barracuda Networks, says the IDC growth figures match the company’s own research earlier this year which found 26% of EMEA businesses already have SD-WAN and 32% are in the process of deploying it. Only 7% have no SD-WAN plans at all. But there is an issue when it comes to understanding SD-WAN and what it delivers. Only 32% of EMEA businesses said they totally understand the technology. A lack of internal skills is a concern for a third of EMEA businesses when it comes to deploying SD-WAN.

To combat this issue, channel partners need to ensure their SD-WAN packages “come with a high level of consultancy and support, and work closely with vendors to make this happen. How many partners out there are already offering SD-WAN training? This could be another revenue avenue to branch out into”, Gheri argues.

But how prepared are channel partners to deliver, implement and support SD-WAN for their customers? And what can vendors and distributors do to help partners exploit the opportunities that SD-WAN brings?

It’s fair to say that there is a diverse range of opinion over how prepared the channel is to support SD-WAN. Louie A. Belt, principal solutions architect at Getronics, offers a blunt assessment. “The majority of partners are not prepared to adequately design, implement and support SD-WAN,” he says.

By contrast, Jason Poole, principal product marketing manager, networking at Citrix, offers a more nuanced view, observing that there is “a mixture of ability when it comes to partners and SD-WAN. Some actively promote it and others are not so forward-thinking - seemingly depending on the demand from customers. Many businesses like the idea of SD-WAN and see intrinsic value in it, but are not convinced enough to move immediately, while many enterprise companies are locked into long-term contracts with their current WAN provider which can also delay sales considerably”.

He argues that partners need to articulate the value of SD-WAN to promote its uptake, “highlighting cost savings, resiliency in the branch and service adoption”. Partners could also consider offering SD-WAN managed services.

Tony Randall, global SD-WAN director for Westcon-Comstor, agrees that “readiness for SD-WAN varies greatly”. He says leading enterprise partners began their SD-WAN journey one to two years ago and are now reaping the rewards. “The market is absolutely past the early-adopter phase,” he adds, “and the technology is beginning to see fast-paced adoption, with those who invested early being in a great position to maximise on the opportunity”. The distributor is “working with more and more partners in training, technical enablement and opportunity scoping at all customer levels, a definite reflection of the broader market interest”.

According to David Park, UK&I channel director at Fortinet, many of the vendor’s channel partners “are already aware, experienced and driving opportunities in the SD-WAN space. However, the challenge they have is how to get their sales teams to recognise an opportunity and then position a solution that resonates with the customer”. They also need to ensure that their technical resource can design and implement the solutions effectively, “without disrupting the normal cadence of their business”.

Mark Hiley, UK & Ireland channel sales director at Riverbed Technology, says the partner community is split. There are those who are “trained and on board with SD-WAN” who will “start to see the benefits of this decision as soon as 2019”. The other half are yet to pick up on SD-WAN “but fortunately many are realising the market opportunity now and are currently picking up on a technology that many of their customers are requesting”.

Mike Kontowtt, EMEA director of channel at Silver Peak, says the channel needs to help customers “shift to a business-first networking model where the network enables the business, rather than the business having to continually conform to the constraints of conventional router-centric networks”. This will enable businesses “to liberate their applications from the compromises and constraints of existing WAN approaches, turning their networks into a business accelerant”.

This means that channel partners need to “shift their focus and attention toward bringing levels of value to customers, partnering with them to address an entirely new set of challenges, including how to use the internet to connect users directly to applications, how to reduce the operational complexity and constraints of traditional WAN approaches and ultimately how to secure their networks and deliver the highest quality of experience to their users”.

That’s easy to say but it doesn’t help that the SD-WAN landscape can be confusing to many. Simon Wilson, HPE Aruba UK and Ireland CTO, describes SD-WAN as a “crowded and complicated market. Once analysts started saying that anything that wasn’t software defined was going to have a challenge, people started coming from all sorts of directions into the market”.

Ian McEwan, EMEA VP at Aryaka, concurs, describing it as “a very crowded market with a very big umbrella called SD-WAN. There are many different vendors in this space because it’s a hot space,” he says, adding that a number are “trying to put a SD-WAN spin on how to protect the edge network or MPLS. There is a lot of noise in the market and there are quite a lot of vendors coming in”.

Needless to say, established vendors such as HPE Aruba and Cisco are emphasising the virtues of incumbency. Wilson at HPE Aruba frames it as a way for an incumbent partner “to expand their capabilities and defend against someone attacking their customer base”. The vendor’s approach is to “take a strong branch solution in terms of on premise wired and wireless network capability and extending it” which provides partners with “an additional revenue opportunity with their existing customer base”.

He describes it as a “useful defensive mechanism when a lot of customers are being hit with offers from solution providers trying to extend their business with a SD-WAN offering. Smaller resellers’ customers are very loyal and would prefer to stay with them.”

David Goff, Cisco UK and Ireland head of enterprise networks, adopts a similar argument, saying “one of the key advantages” the vendor can provide to partners “is customer incumbency and the ability to inform customers of technologies that will help them achieve their key business outcomes. This is crucial given the perceived complexity of SD-WAN. It is a solution made up of many parts which customers do not wish to tackle individually. So, the real market opportunity is in offering customers a unified solution”.

As a newer vendor with its own private SD-WAN, Aryaka adopts a different approach but McEwan accepts that it still has “to be able to show how we fit into the current IT ecosystem to a certain degree”. Paul Bulmer, head of product at KCOM NNS, stresses that SD-WAN “is much more than an overlay service and more about how you run data over a number of network domains, whether it’s cloud access, voice, security or other applications”. And Belt at Getronics warns that “most vendors have not invested the time and effort into evaluating and understanding multiple SD-WAN platforms and therefore try to offer a one size fits all solution”. He adds that partners need to have “a strong understanding of the competitive landscape”.

Randall at Westcon-Comstor does not believe in a one-size-fits-all approach, revealing that the distributor has five vendors in its SD-WAN offer to suit particular customers. “No IT transformation project can be done with a single vendor,” he says. “Westcon-Comstor has an ecosystem of vendors to answer the needs of a next-generation branch solution – spanning networking, security, unified communications and cloud – to deliver solutions for the branch that improve application performance and availability, while lowering the cost of wide networks.”

So what should partners look for from vendors and distributors? Education is high on the list. Poole at Citrix says can vendors can provide technical training to enhance product knowledge. For example, “routing is key to SD-WAN implementations and technical skills in this are vital. Alongside training, familiarity with the product comes with usage - vendors and distributors need to make hardware and software products available to the partners to use in their labs or under PoC conditions to ensure comfort and confidence”.

Justin Fielder, CTO of Zen Internet, observes that education “is clearly needed around SD-WAN. With such a broad term covering a wider variety of solutions, vendors and distributors need to work with their partners to ensure they understand the services they’re offering to customers. The better the channel understands the application of the technology, the more valuable discussions they can have with their customers, in turn, making themselves invaluable”.

Kontowtt at Silver Peak agrees that vendors need to bring “new levels of enablement, training and certification to partners such that they can address the evolving requirements of customers, but also build a profitable business model in parallel to capitalise on the rapidly growing SD-WAN market”.

Hiley says vendors like Riverbed “need to help ensure that our partners are trained to a sufficient competency level to be able to deploy the solutions correctly to ultimately match and exceed the expectations of the customer. We cannot achieve this without well informed and well-trained partners”.

Randall believes it is important to “educate partners with the knowledge we’ve accrued by being the early adopter, qualify and broaden opportunities with the aid of our experienced sales teams and hand-hold partners with initial designs and PoCs through to deployments and professional services”. He stresses that “the whole process should be painless. If partners are new to a technology, they need to focus on closing new business and not managing deployment issues. Heavy investment in our Professional Services business means partners can start deploying immediately with confidence, meanwhile investing as they see success from their SD-WAN journey”.

Poole adds that engagement with customers isn’t an issue because “SD-WAN is a popular topic”, but because companies aren’t making the move immediately, partners are often faced with “long sales cycles and lower-than-normal conversion rates. While this is frustrating for partners, and could affect interest levels, the main drivers are WAN refresh and the general digital transformation of branches that leads to increased SD-WAN adoption”.

He accepts that the channel does not appear “to be universally prepared” for SD-WAN: “Understanding is sporadic and it is up to the vendor community to promote their products and services and offer education on key advantages, so that they can be amplified by the channel. This will take training and encouragement from the vendors.”

In the end, partners need to ensure that SD-WAN is more than just a promise or hype, Bulmer at KCOM NNS warns. They need to ensure they deliver tangible benefits because “there could be some challenges down the road, where the vision falls short for the user, so any product offer has to offer real tangible business outcomes that add value to day-to-day operations”.

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