Even before the pandemic, 2020 saw a surge in demand for SD-WAN as businesses looked for flexible, cost-efficient options to cover their operations. The market is developing, and we are now seeing the introduction of new channel friendly options that partners can take to market. We asked Tony Randall, Global SD-WAN Solution Director, about the SD-WAN landscape and whether COVID is accelerating the market.

Westcon-Comstor started deploying SD-WAN in its own network two years ago, and the results have been very positive. The uptime is now the best in over a decade, while the application visibility from SD-WAN enables the organisation’s IT team to focus on supporting business applications instead of managing the links and devices.

How has COVID-19 impacted the market?

Most network upgrades are part of digital-first transformation for our customers. SD-WAN is the technology of choice for modern networks to enable this, because it supports customers moving their applications to the cloud.

While COVID-19 has created some short-term project delays in certain sectors, we are seeing an acceleration in the pace of customers wanting to move to SD-WAN. So far, we only see widespread interruption from COVID-19 in the travel and retail markets, but with the increase of online learning, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see an acceleration in markets such as education.

What challenges have vendors experienced?

During the pandemic, most SD-WAN vendors have seen a delay with their equipment lead times because the manufacturers for these devices were often closed for periods of time. This issue led us to look at using virtual software instances of SD-WAN on already available hardware, ie universal CPE. The flexibility of SD-WAN being available in a software-only format is an advantage over legacy networks, so will help companies who are making new business continuity plans.

What are the challenges for partners selling SD-WAN?

While some of our reseller customers have advanced capabilities, there’s still a big skills shortage in understanding how to sell and deliver the technology from SD-WAN vendors. Delivering an end-to-end solution as part of a network transformation is complex and requires a lot of pieces drawn together from multiple companies.

Billing SD-WAN services locally is complicated for vendors, partners and end users to manage. At Westcon-Comstor, we have developed our cloud billing system to support SD-WAN. It provides tax-compliant local invoices, as well as billing reports so that our customers are able to recover VAT where possible and reduce their costs.

OPEX purchases and asset ownership is a common finance request. Partners want to pay monthly as OPEX, and not own the assets themselves – which creates a taxable presence – so we have developed an Equipment-as-a-Service offer to support this.

Furthermore, a lack of automation tools can compound partners’ challenges. We saw a gap in tooling with SD-WAN, so we focused on building tools to rapidly turn around project pricing, including the technology and the services needed to implement and support it, regardless of the size and geographical reach.

Finally, most SD-WAN vendors are primarily software companies with hardware as a ‘bolt-on’ to facilitate their business. Consequently, they struggle to deliver localised 24×7 support for the hardware and tend to rely on duplicating or triplicating devices at sites. Delivering 24×7 support is something that we can help with, using our global network of engineers to attend sites where failures occur, who replace the faulty device and restore service.

Is MPLS a non-conversation now?

MPLS is one of the underlay technologies I see still in most projects. I do not expect this to change for some time in markets where MPLS is similar in price to business broadband. However, MPLS delivery times are also an issue to consider. We have sometimes had to enable SD-WAN sites on broadband only because of the delay getting MPLS into our sites.

Which markets are ripe for SD-WAN conversion right now?

All markets can benefit from SD-WAN. We are working on projects across most markets and verticals – manufacturing, government, construction, transport, healthcare, finance, mining, law/accountant firms, travel and retail.