CenturyLink has tallied up a list of lessons learned from the deployment of its SD-WAN service at the start of this year.
It seems almost inevitable that whenever a new technology is rolled out there are some unintended use cases or surprises. Such was the case for CenturyLink and its enterprise customers that have deployed its SD-WAN service. Eric Nowak, group manager of Internet, MPLS and SD-WAN at CenturyLink Inc. (NYSE: CTL), spoke about some of the lessons learned to date at last week's NFV & Carrier SDN conference in Denver.
"I think since the invention of the wheel, product managers have been very poor at predicting how customers will actually use, want to pay for (or) consume services that we're delivering, and SD-WAN is no different," Nowak said during the SD-WAN panel in Denver.
SD-WAN uses software and cloud computing to create a point-to-point network overlay across various connections while in turn unifying network management across a wide area network (WAN). Based on policies that are in a central controller, SD-WAN software forwards traffic across the link that is best suited to handle that flow's SLA requirements at a given time without needing a network engineer.
One of the big expected benefits for deploying SD-WAN was cutting down on the use of the more expensive MPLS connections by shuttling some of that traffic between public Internet or private MPLS connections.
However, it turns out that saving money wasn't necessarily top of mind for CenturyLink's 50 business customers that have deployed SD-WAN to date.
"We knew that customers were very interested in the cost savings that would come from [moving from] traditional MPLS connectivity to potentially lower-cost broadband connectivity, or LTE, or multiple versions of that," Nowak said. "For the most part, they're not looking to save money as much as they are looking to get more for the same budget they have to spend. So they can consider with an SD-WAN solution that they may get five to 10 times the bandwidth connectivity, but the same level of security and application performance out of those same budget dollars."
CenturyLink also thought that enterprise customers would cut their entire networks over to SD-WAN, but it has been a more measured approach, which takes us to Nowak's lesson No. 2.
"What we found is that almost everyone believes that the evolution will occur over time," Nowak said. "They'll begin to add new locations under this new way, SD-WAN, but they still need to be able to use all of the same things they are familiar with in the legacy environment which means that prioritization, VRFs, BGP routing, all of those capabilities need to work seamlessly and independent of whether that connection is connected via an SD-WAN solution, MPLS or something else."
Lesson No. 3 was that while CenturyLink was big on a multi-tenant solution for its own infrastructure, it also had unforeseen importance for its customers. Without multi-tenancy, CenturyLink would have had to build a controller and infrastructure for each SD-WAN customer.
"We thought multi tenancy was very important for a service provider because if we can build the infrastructure that supports many customers we can pass those economics on to the end customer," Nowak explained. "They get the advantage. They don't need to buy all of those infrastructure components; they just get to use them as part of the solution."
The unexpected surprise was that multi tenancy was also important to CenturyLink's SD-WAN customers.
"What we didn't understand was that most customers are multi tenant themselves," he said. "They have different franchisees, different divisions, different companies that make up their company, which all need to be delivered individually or managed individually. The ability to leverage a multi tenant management solution is pretty important. Where it really gets important for service providers is that we as service providers have customers that have their own end customers."
By being multi-tenant and selling to customers downstream, CenturyLink could deliver infrastructure components to "middlemen" businesses to manage their own customers on the infrastructure that was built out for them, Nowak said.
"We can now win the integrators in the middle," he said. "That's something we didn't really anticipate as we got into it."
CenturyLink also anticipated that its customers would solve problems in the SD-WAN world the same way they solved them in the old world, "which is they had a private network and then they solved for Internet separately," Nowak said.
"What we're realizing is that the customers are pretty savvy and they're pretty creative," he said. "They realize that if, 'I'm going to have an Internet connection coming into my site and all I'm going to use it for is private network it's probably not fully leveraging that resource.'
"So whether they want a local firewall to let employees Web surf or they want [Office] 365 to be delivered locally instead of coming through a headend, that ability to leverage, in a secure way, that local Internet is pretty important."
While SD-WAN is a very straightforward service, Nowak said the most common question CenturyLink gets was, "How complex is it to deliver?" Customers ask if they can do SD-WAN themselves or if they need to get it from a service provider.
"I think the real answer to that is if we look at this technology it's not that it's complex, but it's so powerful," Nowak said. "There are so many knobs that can be turned to improve the security, to make the analytics work better, to make the performance work better. One of the big trends we'll see with SD-WAN over time is this ability to performance tune a customer's network."
Nowak said that customers "kind of know" at a base level that they are using low-cost, best effort connectivity. But with SD-WAN, Skype for Business and their other applications will work reliably.
"SD-WAN can deliver on that promise, but it still needs to be tuned," he said. "Where does that expertise come from? How do you get up to speed on that? That may be one of the things that limit the adoption. Not that the technology isn't there, but how to fully take advantage of it."
For more on CenturyLink's SD-WAN service, check out:
— Mike Robuck, Editor, Telco Transformation