SD-WAN at the CSP: Why gray solutions are slowing success

It’s striking the number of service providers that have recently started promoting SD-WAN offers, especially given that there is little evidence amongst them of its commercial success. Popularity and perceived demand are high in the telecoms world, but it seems few service providers have yet to really win over end-users. Just another example of industry hype? Or is there more to SD-WAN than meets the eye?

There certainly is. Or rather, there will be soon. The increasing move towards a true white-box approach will undoubtedly be the driver in realizing SD-WAN deployments at the CSP and generating real value behind the hype. So, why have they lagged?

The SD-WAN romance

The appeal of SD-WAN is its software-based, flexible and fully programmable nature. The premise of a service delivered using Common-Off-The-Shelf (COTS) hardware offers the illusion of freedom. COTS hardware suggests that users are no longer locked into one solution, as new Virtual Network Functions (VNFs) can be added from a broad choice of third-party vendors.

As there is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ solution, the end-user can be critical and selective of the services it chooses, based on its own budget and requirements. In turn, this means they can benefit from competition, as vendors can battle to deliver more innovative, cost-effective services.

That’s the SD-WAN story that the industry embraces, at any rate, but it’s not exactly what end-users are being offered.

A gray reality…

Vendor lock-in lurks behind the proposals of many SD-WAN vendors. In many cases, the SD-WAN solution consists only of a low-end x86 appliance provided by the SD-WAN vendor. Although this looks like a solution delivered on COTS hardware, it is in fact a gray-box or, more precisely, a gray solution.

End-users remain tied to a single vendor’s bundle of hardware and software and are unable to run anything other than the vendor’s SD-WAN function. This is true for Cisco ENCS, too. The hardware is white, but the solution is distinctly gray, as end-users are forced to purchase bundled software, including their vRouter.

Many SD-WAN vendors claiming to support 3rd party VNFs are lightly veiling their objective to tie customers to their controllers too, given most SD-WAN solutions combine network overlay, path steering, application visibility, firewall, optimization, etc. In short, more an effort to tackle sales questions than a sign of strategic intent on their part…

Opening up potential

True openness is the key to pitching – and selling - SD-WAN to end-users. It speaks to the principal goals of decision makers: flexibility, competition between vendors, installation and service change delivery times - these are what ultimately affect end-users’ bottom-lines, time-to-market and productivity.

SD-WAN can address several end-user business requirements, with stacks of programmability and opportunity to optimize service, but the real beauty of SD-WAN fails if it is not truly open.

To achieve a genuinely open, brilliant white-box SD-WAN solution, two things are needed: a clear virtualization layer to separate hardware and VNFs, and a broad VNF catalog that can (really) run software from a number of vendors. Only time will tell when vendors will finally embrace a genuine white-box approach, but it will certainly be key to realizing SD-WAN benefits and deployments at the CSP level.