One Size Fits None: Why SD-WAN Implementations Demand a Custom Approach

By Yulia Duryea, Director of Product Management, SD-WAN, Windstream

Yulia Duryea, Director of Product Management, SD-WAN, Windstream

Have you had this experience when you are on vacation at the beach? You and your family want to go wind-surfing or sea kayaking, so you go to the equipment rental shop and when it’s time to pick out life jackets, all they have is one-size-fits-all. I should put “one-size-fits-all” in quotes, though, because we all know that they are not going to fit. For something that’s supposed to save lives in an emergency, it’s more than disconcerting that it is likely to be too small for half of my family and too big for the other half. What makes this particularly frustrating is that the one-size-fits-all approach is totally unnecessary. There are life jackets made in every size from XXS to XXL, but the company renting the boards and kayaks decided to keep things simple for themselves by ordering a bunch of one-size-fits-all jackets (or they got a deal on a bunch of XXL sizes). A one-size-fits-all strategy works for them, but is it ideal for you?

“SD-WAN implementations come in so many flavors for a simple reason: because companies and their needs vary in so many ways”

The same is true with SD-WAN. I am always surprised when companies talk about SD-WAN as if it’s just one thing, because it isn’t. The use cases for SD-WAN cannot be more different from one customer to the next, which means SD-WAN implementations cannot possibly be identical and still meet companies’ needs. There are common elements, of course, but SD-WAN implementations require a tailored approach.

When it comes to mid-market enterprises, which include nearly 200,000 businesses in the U.S. economy, they are often underserved by the telecommunications industry, which splits their service offerings between services optimized for large enterprises and bundled services optimized for small businesses. Mid-market companies are caught in the gap between those two ends of the market, with far more complex IT needs than small businesses and far fewer resources than the enterprise top end of the market. The mid-market is the most heterogeneous segment of the market by many measures, including differing legacy systems, varying IT strategies, geographic location, proximity of fiber infrastructure, and more. No two mid-market companies are the same, so a one-size-fits-all SD-WAN strategy is particularly ill-fitting for these companies.

Companies that have more nuanced conversations about SD-WAN and more in-depth conversations about how the technology can be tailored to their needs tend to end up with far more successful implementations. Implementing the wrong SD-WAN strategy based on a one-size-fits-all approach can undermine your company’s growth or create operational headaches.

A Customized SD-WAN Strategy

Any discussion of an SD-WAN implementation should start not with a discussion of SD-WAN technology itself but with a discussion of the company’s needs including: the way they do business, an understanding of what’s critical and what’s not to the company’s success, and then an acute understanding of how a software-defined network can be deployed to match those needs.

The first use case I will share is a mid-market manufacturing company that is a leading brand in farm equipment. Their operations included 35 sites, many of which were located in rural areas where telecom infrastructure was not robust. Their legacy network solution, like that of so many other companies, had reached the end of its life cycle and was posing challenges related to speed, reliability of voice calls, and other issues that were affecting their internal and external communications.

Use Case 1: Key Criteria

• Network reach to rural areas and a ubiquitous network
• Call reliability
• Increased bandwidth complicated by financial limitations

These discussions led to a hybrid SD-WAN implementation that dynamically routes traffic, regardless of the connection type, access point or carrier. We also consolidated disparate voice, networking, and other systems in a way that would work well with the SD-WAN architecture. Finally, we added a cloud-based firewall to the solution to ensure highest security and protection for proprietary company information. The result was an SD-WAN implementation that is ideal for that customer, but that looks very different from what was implemented for a similar-sized food service company.

That brings us to the second use case, which is a fast-growing chain of restaurants with nearly 50 locations around the U.S. and with more mapped out in the growth plan, which places it firmly in the mid-market of the food service industry. Their legacy network was not able to keep pace with either the growth of the company or the network-driven capabilities they wanted to have in each restaurant location.

Use Case 2: Key Criteria

• A fast and repeatable deployment model
• Network resilience and diversity for secure payments
• Greater bandwidth with a minimum 20 Mbps download speed to support Internet usage of employees and customers
• High level of customer support

Those needs led to an SD-WAN deployment that was coupled with a secure, cloud-based UCaaS solution with an implementation plan for the company’s headquarters alongside an implementation template that would be rolled out to all current and future stores. A cost-benefit analysis conducted by the company has determined that there is already a measurable positive impact on company margins due to this implementation, as well. The SD-WAN architecture was also designed for the specific needs of a restaurant environment with a high number of users who are likely to be in a data consumption mode with peaks throughout the day at key meal times.

The third use case is a nationwide non-profit organization that provides healthcare and charitable services to underprivileged populations and disaster-stricken areas. The non-profit has a mixed legacy system with 25 sites served by a traditional WAN and more than 100 more served by a variety of Internet-based telecommunications services and providers.

Use Case 3: Key Criteria

• High-access resiliency
• Consistent quality of service across all branches
• Prioritization of life-critical applications

The implementation designed for this non-profit organization had a single operations center for the entire network as a centerpiece of the project, which enabled the customer to actively manage routing decisions as needed. This focus on giving this customer more control over their WAN and the ability to route their own traffic via their own management portal is a unique requirement for a mid-market organization, given that most other mid-market companies look to the provider to do management of the solution. The secure UCaaS solution and the SD-WAN architecture were also designed with broadband and broadband access loops to support the range of healthcare-related needs.

Three different companies and three dramatically different SD-WAN implementations, each shaped by the specifics of their business needs. I should note that these examples aren’t simply “types” that represent the only scenario for each of those vertical industries. The one-size-fits-all approach doesn’t work within a specific industry either.

SD-WAN implementations come in so many flavors for a simple reason: because companies and their needs vary in so many ways—both dramatic and nuanced. When your organization begins talking about moving on from its legacy WAN architecture, remember that observation about life jackets. It’s much better to have a tailored SD-WAN strategy that is truly designed around the organization’s needs.