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5 reasons to choose a managed SD-WAN and 5 reasons to think twice

Northgate Gonzalez Markets, a chain of grocery stores in southern California, was launching a fast-paced digital transformation initiative that required a complete revamp of its WAN infrastructure.

Northgate was taking the bold step of eliminating its data center and moving around 500 servers' worth of applications and data to the cloud. The old WAN topology of backhauling traffic from each of its 43 locations to a central data center via two T-1s had to be replaced with a direct, reliable, resilient, secure connection from each individual location to the cloud.

Harrison Lewis, CIO and chief privacy officer at Northgate Markets, settled on an SD-WAN deployment. After evaluating the pros and cons of the do-it-yourself (DIY) option versus a managed service, Lewis decided that a managed approach was preferable for multiple reasons, with speed at the top of the list. "We had a compressed timeline," he says. "We didn't have the luxury of saying, 'Let's take our time with it."'

Another key consideration was the sheer wherewithal it would have taken for his IT staffers to plan, pilot, configure, deploy, troubleshoot and manage the SD-WAN infrastructure at all of those locations. "We were able to leverage the knowledge and skills of someone who had done it before," Lewis says. While SD-WAN hardware vendors argue that deploying their devices is pretty much plug-and-play, Lewis points out that "there's a lot to be considered, and it was critically important that we get it right."

For Lewis, a third key driver in favor of a managed approach was the ability to go beyond core SD-WAN connectivity and order up additional features from the managed service provider, including web content filtering, anti-virus, web firewalls and secure Web gateways.

Trend lines are up for managed SD-WAN

Northgate Markets is part of a growing trend of companies moving to SD-WAN via managed services.

Gartner analyst Lisa Pierce points out an interesting dichotomy: Most companies outside the U.S. use managed services for their WAN needs, while the majority of U.S. companies, especially the larger ones, have historically taken the DIY route. But that is changing.

Enterprises that are trying to reduce expenses while also achieving greater WAN agility and performance are increasingly turning to managed SD-WAN services, according to Gartner, which predicts that managed SD-WAN will grow at a compound annual growth rate of 84.7% between 2017 and 2022.

"By year-end 2023, more than 90% of WAN edge infrastructure refresh initiatives will be based on virtualized customer premises equipment (vCPE) platforms or software defined WAN (SD-WAN) software/appliances versus traditional routers," says the latest Gartner report on WAN edge infrastructure. "Evaluate WAN-as-a-service for your next refresh, even if you have traditionally pursued a DIY approach," the research firm recommends.

New research from Vertical Systems Group likewise finds that the U.S. market for carrier-managed SD-WAN services (this doesn't include managed SD-WAN provided by systems integrators) is expected to surge to $4.5 billion by 2023. That figure counts revenue from WAN access services as well as overlay features.

Managed vs. DIY

The reasons to adopt SD-WAN itself are pretty clear cut: flexibility, agility, efficiency, centralized management, and better security. With an SD-WAN overlay, companies can slash MPLS costs, optimize WAN traffic on an application by application basis, and enable branch offices to connect directly to cloud services, which translates into an improved user experience and more efficient business processes.

The choice between DIY and a managed service is more complex and depends on a variety of factors, including the state of your current WAN, the types of business pressures that might be driving a switch to SD-WAN, the skill level of IT staffers, the geographic scope of the WAN, and how much control you're willing to hand over to a service provider.

Here are five reasons to choose a managed SD-WAN:

Here are some reasons to think twice before signing up for a managed SD-WAN service.

Managed SD-WAN vendor options

While analysts are projecting an explosion of managed SD-WAN uptake over the next few years, the market has been somewhat slow in developing. According to Vertical Systems, current market penetration for carrier-managed SD-WAN is only 5% of the total $40 billion market for managed WAN services, which also includes MPLS and site-to-site VPNs.

"Misperceptions about SD-WAN have delayed network purchase decisions and limited market growth," says Rosemary Cochran, principal and co-founder of Vertical Systems Group. "Migration to SD-WAN is a more complex undertaking than has been pitched to date, particularly for larger enterprises and global networks."

Cochran adds that it took some time for carriers to build out the internal processes and infrastructure required to offer a new service. But carriers are now all-in on managed SD-WAN. Of course, enterprises also have the option of working with a systems integrator. In addition, going to a managed SD-WAN doesn't have to be all or nothing; there are hybrid options that allow enterprises to pick up management responsibilities post-installation or to enter into a co-management arrangement.

Northgate picks AT&T

In the case of Northgate Markets, AT&T, the incumbent, was almost an afterthought when Lewis was putting together a list of potential vendors. He says he didn't think AT&T would respond well to a proposal that called for them to cannibalize their cash cow MPLS service. But AT&T came back with an impressive managed SD-WAN proposal, and Lewis hasn't looked back.

He has been able to increase bandwidth, boost reliability, improve security and prioritize traffic at the application level. AT&T installed SD-WAN gear from VeloCloud (owned by VMware) and cloud security tools from Zscaler. The installation went "incredibly smoothly," Lewis says.

And by having two broadband access modes - one wired, one wireless - Lewis has enjoyed uninterrupted service. In fact, he has occasionally received a notice from AT&T that there was a service interruption on the wired network several days prior, but the failover was so seamless that he wasn't even aware of it and there was no business impact. "That's a pretty crazy place to be as IT organization," Lewis says.

Lewis says he's on track to have the entire data center moved to cloud platforms by October. "This has opened up a lot of possibilities for us to continue a reduction in expenses, improve resiliency, be able to scale, innovate and differentiate. It has also enabled us to focus in on driving value to our business."

This story, "5 reasons to choose a managed SD-WAN and 5 reasons to think twice" was originally published by Network World.