Virtual Realities – Keep it (Not-So) Simple
By: Yulia Duryea
Simple can be great. Simple can be better than great, actually. Fresh-baked bread plus butter equals simple and beyond great. Fresh blackberries still warm from the sun plus homemade whipped cream is simple and greater than great. I’m first in line for that. Pinot noir plus glass plus sunset… you get the picture.
Simple can be great, but sometimes the desire to keep things simple leads to the risk of oversimplifying something that shouldn’t be. That risk definitely exists in the technology world, where customers so often wish that every solution would come in a shrink-wrapped box – prepackaged and ready to simply plug and play. That expectation may be appropriate for plugging in a desk phone at a new employee’s desk. You expect that phone to work and immediately hear a ring tone. The difficulty comes when customers want every IT solution to come in a one-size-fits-all package. This is when simplicity crosses over the border into oversimplification, and nothing good happens to customers or their channel partners in the land of oversimplification.
Oversimplification is particularly seductive to mid-market customers, which are caught in the gap between the small business market (that truly does have plug-and-play solutions for so many IT challenges) and the large enterprise market (where deep pockets can simply throw money at IT needs to get where they want to go). Mid-sized companies look longingly at their smaller cousins and much bigger cousins and naturally wish their life was that simple in terms of IT. It’s hard to look at the consumer-style, plug-and-play IT solutions that are available to small businesses and not be a bit jealous if you are a mid-sized company with much more complex IT needs. And it’s also hard to look at how large enterprises simplify the heck out of complex IT projects by spending seemingly limitless budgets on outside vendors that carry the burden managing their IT solutions.
No one can blame mid-sized companies for wanting simplicity. They look around and see everyone else eating warm-to-the-touch bread with butter and nibbling berries with cream, and they want the same thing. I get it. But all too often that desire for simplicity makes mid-sized companies put their channel partners in a bind by asking for simplicity when simplicity is actually a recipe for failure. They want plug-and-play when a one-size-fits-all solution is doomed to failure from the get-go. It’s a trap that I see in action firsthand in so many conversations with customers, particularly about SD-WAN implementations. These customers know they need to upgrade from their outdated, underperforming, barely-holding-it-together WANs, but they are exhausted by the idea of a complex IT project before it even gets underway. That is particularly true with mid-sized customers, for which every IT project is complex given the legacy equipment they rely on and their limited budgets. For once, they want one of these projects to be as simple as pinot and a setting sun, and so many companies seem to be pinning their hopes for that simplicity on an SD-WAN implementation.
What does that mean for resellers? It means RFPs with unrealistically simple project scopes from new customers that are hoping and praying that a new SD-WAN will be a matter of a few clicks and voila! It means off-by-a-mile expectations from existing customers who ask for a proposal for an SD-WAN project that they can pull out of a box like a new iPhone. These expectations set the channel partner up for failure … but enough of the doom and gloom. Let’s all have a sip of pinot and a spoonful of berries and take a deep breath, because SDWAN implementations don’t have to fall into the oversimplification trap. In fact, resellers can turn this simplicity temptation into an advantage that helps them deliver a powerful value proposition to customers and lay the groundwork for a successful implementation.
Turning that potential trap into an asset isn’t magic. It’s logic. Because even though customers want simplicity, they know oversimplification when they see it, and they know that is not a path to success. There will be no shortage of resellers who will seek to take advantage of customers’ cravings for simplicity by making sales presentations that make SD-WAN planning and implementation look as easy as pie. Well, guess what? Anyone who has ever made a pie knows it ain’t easy. Pie takes careful planning, and so does SD-WAN. Customers know deep down that SD-WAN can’t be as easy as so many vendors are trying to make it out to be. Customers know deep down that a one-sizefits-all approach doesn’t work for a pair of flip-flop sandals let alone a complex SD-WAN project. They need to know the truth, and being the only one who is trying to truly be a partner rather than just making a sale can help you stand out from the crowd.
Your team is probably already fielding a lot of questions from customers about SD-WAN. If you aren’t yet, you will shortly. IDC estimates that as many as 75 percent of U.S.-based companies will have implemented or plan to implement a SD-WAN solution within the next two years, as businesses continue to move mission-critical data into the cloud, and as employees rely more and more on a combination of public and private connections to do their jobs. All of those cloudbased applications and mobile applications put stress on traditional WANs that they were not originally designed to handle. After all, WANs are decades-old technologies that literally predate the Internet. They have survived because of incredible durability that made them a solid foundation for corporate computing. But WANs are showing their age in a number of ways:
- They suffer from performance problems for cloud-based applications that are difficult to ignore, affecting both internal operations and customer experience;
- They lead to frustratingly poor sound quality for VoIP phone calls;
- They create delays and errors in data backups;
- They are difficult and time-consuming to expand in order to add more data capacity or connect out to new branches and offices; and
- They have stunningly high maintenance costs, as well as the cost of supplemental connectivity services to make up for shortcomings.
Customers who are sick and tired of those problems quickly go through the five stages of grief and arrive at the decision that they need to upgrade to an SD-WAN, which is far better suited to a cloud-based, mobile computing world. Customers know they want an SD-WAN, but they don’t want it to be painful. And that is where oversimplification becomes a temptation. That is a danger for channel companies but also an opportunity.
Customers want SD-WAN to be simple, but as soon as they hear the words “one size fits all,” they know immediately that that is not the path they want to go down. Too many companies talk about SD-WAN as if it’s just one thing, but it isn’t. There are as many flavors of SD-WAN implementations as there are companies that will use it. That is because every SD-WAN needs to be customized to match a long list of characteristics of the end-user company today, and be designed to adapt to how the company will grow over time. There are common elements, of course, but SD-WAN implementations are all unique, because they have to be. And customers will get that if you tell them and back it up with examples.
Here are three quick examples to illustrate why one-size-fits-all doesn’t work when it comes to SD-WAN. Each of these is an actual, mid-sized customer that has recently done an implementation with our team:
A nationwide provider of healthcare and charitable services to underprivileged populations and disaster-stricken areas wanted to upgrade to an SD-WAN from its mixed legacy system that connected 125 different operations centers and offices via a traditional WAN combined with IP-based services. Key needs related to its operational model included:
- Highly resilient access to connectivity ensures that operations would stay up and running even during disasters;
- Consistent quality of services across all offices to ensure that they could provide excellent support to populations around even their smallest offices; and 3. Prioritization of certain applications that were involved in literally life-saving activities, given their focus on healthcare and emergency response.
In response to those needs, the SD-WAN implementation included a single operations center for the entire network, giving the organization the ability to manage routing decisions during crisis situations. The SD-WAN was also designed to take advantage of dual broadband access loops to ensure that even small, remote offices get adequate support. The SD-WAN was also tuned to provide specialized support to applications that are directly involved in life-saving activities.
On the Farm
A manufacturing company that specializes in farming equipment had operations with 35 sites located primarily in rural locations with limited telecommunications infrastructure, and they were experiencing many of the challenges discussed above when a WAN reaches the end of its life-cycle. As a result they wanted to upgrade to an SD-WAN that would achieve a specific checklist of needs:
- A network that would provide equal support to every office so that connectivity and IT performance was uniform regardless of where their facilities were located;
- Improved call quality for their VoIP solution, given how much of its customer interaction is done via phone rather than other means; and
- Increased bandwidth, but with an eye on budget given the limited operational expenditures it wanted to have on an ongoing basis for meeting its data needs.
The SD-WAN implementation focused on a hybrid SD-WAN that was combined with a UCaaS that gave high-quality voice service based on how the SD-WAN was tuned to prioritize voice calls. The SD-WAN also was designed to dynamically route traffic in a way that balanced operational costs for various types of bandwidth with the goal of providing uniform service to each of the company’s sites.
A professional services company in the human resources and employment services field with dozens of North American offices that were connected with a legacy VPN-based system dependent on routing equipment that was obsolete needed an SD-WAN upgrade. Based on an analysis of its network infrastructure and how its business needs were evolving, we identified the following key criteria for the SD-WAN strategy:
- Eliminate expensive MPLS loop costs that were contributing to the cost of the legacy WAN;
- Move away from costly data center infrastructure that housed the antiquated routing equipment as the heart of the old system;
- Provide centralized management of the network that enabled the company to more efficiently manage its use; and 4. Optimize the network’s design to support key needs such as video collaboration, voice communications and file sharing.
The resulting implementation was a standalone SD-WAN implementation with architecture designed around broadband/broadband loops and cellular wireless networks. This customer also needed help with the ongoing management of its network traffic to free up its team for other IT responsibilities. Three companies, three dramatically different SD-WAN strategies and implementations. A one-size-fits-all approach would have been a terrible fit for all of these organizations.
Your customers know their company is not a carbon copy of the midsized business down the street. They are unique, and their SD-WAN needs to be unique as well, otherwise it won’t come close to meeting their needs.
By educating customers about the dangers of oversimplifying SD-WAN – with the help of the right language and the right examples – you will position yourself as the straight talker that isn’t just trying to sell them a solution in a box. You are trying to save them from a common mistake that will be costlier in the long-run. Ideally, an SD-WAN implementation begins with a comprehensive review of the company’s technology needs and business strategy, a detailed discussion of where the company is headed in the future, and development of an SD-WAN plan that is tailored to the customer. It’s the kind of process that requires a reseller that is a true partner, and educating customers about all of this will differentiate your company from every other firm trying to prey on the customer’s desire for this to be a matter of a few clicks rather than a discussion.
Simple makes sense for bread and a lovely berry dessert. But SD-WAN is complex enough to require a trusted partner to steer the process, and the provider that tells the truth and invests the time to educate customers will be the one who earns their trust and their business. That’s the simple truth, and simple truths are better than good – better than great, actually.
[Yulia Duryea is director of product management for Windstream’s Enterprise Business Unit where she is the product lead over the Enterprise WAN and Managed Services portfolio. She is Windstream’s resident thought leader and technologist for SD-WAN solutions.]
This digital article is sponsored by: LSI
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