Co-managed SD-WAN: the answer to your network issues?

By Nick Greenway

For many years, most organisations have opted to procure WAN as a fully managed service, typically alongside other managed services such as IT, LAN and voice. That’s because the established global service providers offer remarkably cost-effective solutions. But Software-Defined WAN (SD-WAN) is changing that.

This is partly because managed service providers are still evolving their SD-WAN offering and partly because you only get the full benefits of the technology when you can modify application routing policies in real time to respond to business changes.

So, what are the options when adopting SD-WAN if traditional managed services aren’t effective?

In-house SD-WAN development needs in-house skills

A self-build approach to an enterprise SD-WAN can be attractive, especially as no one knows your applications estate as well as you do. You’ll be able to define the application routing policies that best suit your needs, with the flexibility and agility to adapt them continuously. In other words, you won’t need to submit a change request to a service provider to onboard a new application or change a policy.

But a self-build approach is inherently risky.

First, your organisation will need the expertise to design, build and operate the network. Such in-house skills are likely in short supply if you’ve been buying managed WAN services for a while. And, as SD-WAN is a nascent technology, you’ll need specialised new hires and a significant investment in staff training - building such skills is costly.

Second, you’ll need to procure an SD-WAN vendor’s solution and internet link suppliers. If you’re an international organisation, that means you’ll also need to procure links in different parts of the world, undertake the local installs, troubleshoot problems around the clock and train a global workforce.

Best of both worlds through a co-managed approach

A co-managed SD-WAN lets you take control of aspects like the application routing and security polices while handing over everything else to a managed service provider. That means you won’t have to worry about installation, multiple local procurements or the day-to-day running of the network. You can even negotiate the level of control with the managed service provider to suit your needs, seeking a flexible arrangement that lets you take increasing responsibility over time.

Figure 1: Enterprise involvement in different deployment options of an SD-WAN

Taking a co-managed approach immediately de-risks the deployment of the SD-WAN and does away with the need to develop in-house capabilities. At the same time, it provides you with greater flexibility to manage the policies that give your organisation the most value.

Not all SD-WAN offers are equal

At the WAN Summit Frankfurt 2019, a poll of enterprise users by Telegeography suggested that around 45 per cent of SD-WANs deployed so far have been self-build. But as managed service providers develop their offers to include co-managed options, we expect this to change.

Just remember, not all managed service providers have a self-service portal that offers granular self-management options. And some don’t let you manage application routing or security policies at all. This would make it impossible to manage the network in real time, limiting your ability to quickly respond to changes and negating the benefits of SD-WAN.

To avoid running into this problem late, be clear in your SD-WAN procurement process about the level of control you need.

Balancing a co-managed relationship

A co-managed approach introduces greater flexibility that exploits the full benefits of SD-WAN and lowers the deployment risk. However, there needs to be an appropriate balance to make it worthwhile for the managed service provider. By contracting them to design, procure, install, configure and operate the network, they’ll get a commercially-viable contract and you’ll be free to adapt the network in response to changing business needs.

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