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CenturyLink: SD-WAN No Quick Fix

Carol Wilson

DALLAS -- SD-WAN Strategies for Success -- Even as the SD-WAN market takes off, it's critically important to set customer expectations accurately for what this one service can -- and can't -- do to deliver better connectivity for cloud-based applications and more, a CenturyLink executive warned here yesterday.

Bill Grubbs, network solutions architect with CenturyLink, said that 18 months of experience selling SD-WAN has made it clear that success in this arena needs to be based on establishing long-term customer relationships, not offering a quick fix to the need for Internet offload or cheaper connections than MPLS can provide. SD-WAN is part of a customer network transformation of that has to be carefully tailored if it is going to succeed in the long-run. Many factors -- the underlying transport, available resources, application type and even the nature of the typical user -- will determine how the service needs to be set up and operated, he said.

"The typical engagement starts with 'I want to reduce the cost of my network while increasing my availability,' " Grubbs said. "The challenge when you start looking into that situation is that there is more than just that to it."

The danger is unrealistic user expectations, he added. "A lot of people think they'll get 80% reduction in TCO" by moving traffic to an SD-WAN from their dedicated MPLS links. "Once they have grabbed on to that, it is hard to reset expectations," so it's better to realize from the outset that "if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is."

CenturyLink's Bill Grubbs

One part of the long-term relationship strategy is working with the customer to help them view SD-WAN as a part of a broader transformation of their networking services and then to design those services to meet both the specific needs of that customer in a way that is not disruptive or risky for them.

"It's about how do I transform the customer to this new technology in a way that they are confident it is not going to disrupt them, it is not going to distract them, and they are not going to have outages, not only through that transformation but through the operational life of the technology," Grubbs said. "The evolution to SD-WAN is exactly that. We talked about a vision of what the end state looks like but you are not going to be able to jump all the way in."

Most customers are not really prepared for the changes ahead, he added.

"We've had good luck with the Versa platform and the integrated security and simplification that provides," Grubbs said. "But as soon as I go into a conversation with somebody and say 'I'm going to change out your network architecture, your edges, your transports and, oh by the way, we are going to change out your perimeter security to the Internet,' people's heads explode."

Grubbs said CenturyLink's practical approach is to take a holistic view of the customers' applications down to the details, as well as the varying sites being connected and their differences, and its approach to cloud connections -- public or private -- among other things. Some customers already have trusted cloud partners such as Microsoft Office365 or Salesforce, some may want the private cloud connections CenturyLink can give them or they may want everything in a public cloud (or think they do). Others are less certain.

"We'll ask if they have a cloud strategy and they'll say, 'Yes, we want to use the cloud,' " Grubbs said.

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Security has to be integrated into the service from the outset, but the approach will vary depending on the customer so having both edge-based security and security deployed deeper in the network is an advantage, Grubbs said.

"You may want to have future control planes between your WAN and your LAN but you may not be able to afford to have those as separate pieces today, from a licensing and operational efficiency standpoint," he said. "Being able to do that efficiently gives you the flexibility to be able to evolve as customer requirements do, whether it's for mobility, additional devices, IoT, Big Data analytics," or other things that are still evolving today.

Changing customer deployments is another reason to view all this as a journey and to build in as much flexibility as possible along the way, knowing that, in many cases, service providers have to help their customers plan for the unknown, Grubbs added.

He cautioned network operators to "plan for failure" in how their services and networks are established, realizing that Internet connections won't be as reliable as MPLS, and that as commodity gear is increasingly put into play, backups options and resilience become more important.

And Grubbs advised those getting started to start simply and not turn on features "just because you can," since over-engineering creates its own problems. He called this final piece of advice his favorite and it earned a laugh from the crowd.

"Software-defined networking and zero-touch provisioning don't eliminate the need for planning and design," Grubbs said. Giving customers a portal is fine but careful planning of data center and network resources is still needed. "It all goes back to risk management and mitigation."

— Carol Wilson, Editor-at-Large, Light Reading

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