SD-WAN Roundup: MetTel Warns of 'Masquerading' Vendors

Plus, another conversation on MPLS.

James Anderson, Senior News Editor

April 2, 2018

8 Min Read

**Editor’s Note: Read our list of 20 top SD-WAN providers offering products and services via channel partners.**

There’s a difference between providing SD-WAN and being “SD-WAN-like.”

Conversations with a service provider, analyst and partners highlight the marketing confusion that the growing software-defined wide area networking industry is experiencing.

Zachary Grant, MetTel’s vice president of enterprise solutions, warns that certain vendors might not be providing the full benefit of SD-WAN.


MetTel’s Zachary Grant

Why? Because in the marketing craze that is SD-WAN, many company have simply rebranded their products. It reminds Grant of when carriers were moving from 3G to 4G.

“We had different carriers using different underlying technologies, and some of them didn’t make a change at all. They just rebranded themselves and said, ‘Oh yeah, we’re 4G.’ Because it wasn’t a technology; it was a marketing term,” Grant said. “We’re seeing that same dynamic in SD-WAN where there [are] a lot of technology companies that are using WAN optimization — technology that’s been around for 15-20 years. They’re rebranding themselves as SD-WAN and really kind of masquerading as an SD-WAN technology.”

Brian Washburn, who leads Ovum‘s network transformation and cloud services practice, says one factor behind this confusion is the lack of standardized language to describe SD-WAN.


Ovum’s Brian Washburn

“With MPLS, you can clearly tell if someone has an MPLS product or service, because there’s a specific set of specifications. You have to assemble packets this way. You have to transport them that way,” Washburn said.

But Washburn describes SD-WAN as “more like a tool kit with a collection of features.”

“We’ve described some platforms by calling them ‘SD-WAN-like,'” he said. “The vendors themselves would never call their products that way, but it’s sort of a way to acknowledge: They’re doing things sort of like these platforms, but it’s not the full feature set implementation that makes someone think, ‘This is as effective as a Viptela, a Versa, a VeloCloud.'”

Another MPLS Conversation?

I’m sorry, but yes.

There’s been an interesting back-and-forth on this column over the past three months on the subject. C3 and Cato Networks pushed hard for SD-WAN ultimately being a replacement for MPLS, Ecessa made the case for hybrid networking, and Eclipse Telecom’s Kirk Armstrong argued that MPLS adoption is increasing.

Grant and MetTel surprised me by saying that SD-WAN is on its way to displacing MPLS. I didn’t see that coming from a carrier that sells MPLS.

“Our messaging to our customers is: ‘Hybrid is a great model, but that’s a great model for MetTel. It’s not necessarily a great model for …

… the customer,” Grant said. “When you look at a customer base outside of the NFL cities — we are not at the place where every building is lit with fiber in the United States yet. We’ve got years to grow.”

He was on a panel with nine other carriers in 2016 when he had to answer the question if SD-WAN would replace MPLS.

“All of them said, ‘No, MPLS is going to be around forever. It’s a technology we can’t displace.’ When it got to me, I said, ‘You know what? My customers are using SD-WAN, and it’s giving them access to a full paradigm of access choices: copper, fiber, coax. MPLS doesn’t give you that,” he said. “When a customer makes a decision that half of their traffic can go on a public network being encrypted, why would they continue to pay for the other 50 percent through an expensive MPLS private network and have [fewer] options?”

Flash-forward to 2018, and 30 percent of the MPLS market has been disrupted, Grant said. Verizon’s Shawn Hakl told Network World that adopting SD-WAN has been an unlikely driver of MPLS revenue, but Grant says that trend won’t last forever.

He believes the cost of MPLS is going to rise. That’s not because MPLS is inherently more expensive than SD-WAN. But the market-share interruption will go from 30 percent to higher over the upcoming years.

“Once they recognize that they’re losing revenue off the private network, they’re not going to want to continue to pay the expense of maintaining those private networks. The cost of MPLS will naturally have to go up. When you lose market share, your costs are going to have to rise.”

Washburn has a different take, based on conversations and surveys. He says the message of the original SD-WAN vendors about the ability of the internet to “re-create an applications-rich, high-performance environment” is easier said than done for the enterprise.

“Larger enterprises, from all of our experiences, are reticent to let go of MPLS, because they either like it and they’re sticking with it because of it’s ability to have guaranteed performance. Or they don’t like it, but they stick with it anyway because there isn’t really any other equivalent game in town,” Washburn said.

Many enterprises weren’t willing to do a full “swap-out” because of guaranteed performance concerns or because they saw Layer 2 services as lacking in scalability. As a result, more vendors have added the option to augment MPLS to give enterprises flexibility.

But that’s the case for the enterprise, and smaller businesses are a much different conversation.

“They tend to have fewer applications, so they’re not as complex. They may be more able to move to the cloud than some of the bigger guys,” Washburn said. “They don’t have a lot of proprietary, weird stuff left inside of the organization.”

The midmarket has fewer strings that keep it attached to MPLS and prevent an eventual replacement, according to Washburn.

“You get to the midmarket, and they were never really that deep in …

… MPLS in the first place. As you go from the midmarket down to small businesses, it’s all upside for them to deploy SD-WAN on internet,” he said.

For the companies that want to move to the internet, there’s a crucial role that service providers and managed services will play in deployments. The marketing messages of SD-WAN often promise a clean, cost-saving migration, but many of these customers lack the in-house skills to get the job done.

“There’s a lot of complexity for the enterprise and existing set of networks on how to get from point A to point B. The SD-WAN vendors don’t necessarily highlight a lot of those complexities because that’s something that a systems integrator needs to take care of, or a network provider or IT service company.”

For example, a large enterprise with many branch offices had two MPLS networks from two providers feeding into dual routers. The company wanted to move one of those fabrics to internet.

This was a complex task that involved deciding the types and sources of connectivity to use, retiring routers and ultimately retiring the third-party MPLS provider. The process, which includes many more steps than I mentioned, requires more resources than the enterprise already has in-house.

“That’s where it’s much easier to turn to an external third party and say, ‘You guys know networks. You’re operating one of our networks already. Just incorporate this other stuff. Work with the third parties. Do the dispatch. Do everything that needs to be done to get us to the desired future state,'” he said.

That means the buyer has to determine which partners have the necessary skills. Washburn says there are different criteria to consider. Has the service provider recently started working with SD-WAN, or has it been doing it for four or five years? What kind of help desk and technical support do they offer? And what experience do they have with specific verticals?


Tangoe’s Scott Rider

“Can they show that they’ve done a similar kind of deployment for someone else already? That’s a good proof point to have,” Washburn said. “If you’re a financial institution, you’ve done a similar thing for a different financial institution. That’s pretty good evidence that they probably know what they’re doing.”

Tangoe is a MetTel partner that’s known for its position in telecom expense management and managed mobility. The company’s advisory team works with clients on SD-WAN, helping them to distinguish between carrier offerings and to reap the benefits of the technology.

Scott Rider is Tangoe’s engagement director of advisory services. He tells Channel Partners that his company offers a variety of options depending on the use case of the customer.

“We do tend to see a lot of our clients lean toward …

… the hybrid-type solution, where they might be dabbling in some of their smaller offices with the broadband connections but still maintaining those dedicated internet or MPLS connections in some of their more mission-critical sites,” Rider said.

He says the company’s vertical is a big factor. For example, replacing MPLS has been popular in retail. But stringent up-time requirements cause some clients take a longer time to become comfortable with SD-WAN. Those that care less about network control and cost probably won’t displace MPLS, Rider said.

Rider says it’s important to nuance between broadband internet and dedicated internet. A cable or DSl-based internet connection has a different price compared to a dedicated Ethernet/internet connection. And many customers aren’t comfortable with broadband.

“It really depends on the solution that customer is looking for,” he said.

Quick Hits

  • Brian Washburn will be on a panel with me, Kirk Armstrong and Matthew Toth at the upcoming Channel Partners Conference & Expo in Las Vegas. Check out our preview Q&A, which has some interesting teasers.

  • Telesystem launched an SD-WAN service last week in partnership with Versa Networks. Read about the company’s slow-but-steady approach to SD-WAN.

  • Cato Networks released a study detailing customers’ SD-WAN drivers and pain points. Businesses are looking to simplify their network architecture. Check out the story.

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About the Author(s)

James Anderson

Senior News Editor, Channel Futures

James Anderson is a news editor for Channel Futures. He interned with Informa while working toward his degree in journalism from Arizona State University, then joined the company after graduating. He writes about SD-WAN, telecom and cablecos, technology services distributors and carriers. He has served as a moderator for multiple panels at Channel Partners events.

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