SD-WAN best practices for a successful implementation

Follow these three best practices to ensure a successful SD-WAN implementation and maximize long-term success.

11 minute read time

As enterprise organizations continue to push applications and business-critical data to the cloud, and as teams continue to sprawl outward from a centralized hub, IT leaders must evolve their networks to deliver fast, flexible and secure access and performance—no matter where end users, devices and information are located.

The golden age of SD-WAN migration

Organizations around the world have modernized their networks and accelerated digital business transformation initiatives with software-defined wide area networking (SD-WAN). And the market is showing no signs of slowing down: In 2019, the global SD-WAN market size was roughly $1.4 billion and it is expected to reach $43 billion by 2030.1

Why SD-WAN offers an advantage

Compared to MPLS, SD-WAN offers numerous business advantages including greater network resiliency, advanced application performance, access technology flexibility and centralized management, and the foundations for next-gen networking and security frameworks like Secure Access Service Edge (SASE), to name a few.

3 SD-WAN best practices for a successful implementation

What’s the key to a successful SD-WAN implementation? Like any large technology solution roll-out, getting SD-WAN right is all about upfront strategy and planning. Follow these three best practices to ensure a successful implementation for your software-defined wide area network:

1. Align on your what and why

2. Identify your who

3. Pinpoint your where and when

In 2019, the global SD-WAN market size was roughly $1.4 billion and it is expected to reach $43 billion by 20301

Best practice 1: Align on your what and why

Plan strategically for your SD-WAN implementation

The basis for SD-WAN success lies in your ability to understand your organization’s needs today, and anticipate what you might need going forward.

Ask yourself and your stakeholders:

  • What business challenge is SD-WAN trying to solve?
  • What opportunity are we trying to capitalize on?
  • How is technology inhibiting us today?

By thinking strategically with a forward-looking perspective, you’ll avoid common pitfalls like focusing on how products work vs. what they enable.

If you’re facing any of these common challenges, SD-WAN might be right for your organization:

Increasing downtime/no resiliency:

You’re facing outages that disrupt critical business operations and/or impact end-user experience.

Apps reside in the cloud:

You need to deliver fast and secure access to cloud environments—including to remote employees.

Distributed workforce accessing network from outside controlled environment:

Your employees are tapping into the network from their homes, branch offices, satellite sites or local coffee shops.

High bandwidth/performance demands:

Your teams need bandwidth-hungry apps like video conferencing and other collaboration tools to connect, innovate and engage.

Network complexity:

You’re managing multiple network solutions, vendors and resources, perhaps with interoperability and resource constraints.

Limited visibility:

You lack a holistic and deep view into and control over network activity: who’s doing what, on which applications, when.

IT budget pressures:

You’re facing declining or stagnating budgets, but need to deliver more to your teams as the business evolves.

SD-WAN use cases

  • Increasing outages/lack of resiliency
  • Apps reside in the cloud
  • Distributed workforce accessing network from outside controlled environment
  • High bandwidth/performance demands
  • Network complexity
  • Limited visibility
  • IT budget pressures

Get buy-in for your SD-WAN solution

Central to aligning around your ‘why’ is getting everyone else to believe in it. The buying dynamics at enterprise organizations areHow is technology inhibiting us today? highly complex and fraught with friction.2 According to Gartner, the typical buying group for complex B2B solutions involves 6 to 10 decision-makers—with 77% stating that their latest purchase was very complex or difficult.

77% of B2B buyers state that their latest purchase was very complex or difficult.2

Each decision-maker comes to the table with different (and sometimes competing) needs, challenges, motivations and levels of authority.

For example, your CMO might be laser focused on enabling a great end-user experience, while your CISO is dialed into security. Your COO needs to see solutions with resiliency and reliability to achieve business continuity, and an IT Lead may have their eyes on the latest bleeding-edge solution.

The key to keeping the peace and keeping your plan on track is to understand your decision-makers’ worldview as it relates to technology, and help them see how SD-WAN can deliver on each of their goals. By gaining alignment early and often, you’ll build advocates, avoid internal conflict that can delay or derail a project, and ease the migration journey.

Best practice 2: Identify your who

Once you’ve determined that SD-WAN is right for your business and aligned with your buying committee, you’ll need to determine who will design, procure, install and ultimately manage your solution—your team or a managed service provider.

In a managed deployment, the organization purchases the service from a service provider who works with the organization to design, install and operate the SD-WAN infrastructure, such as endpoints and dual uplinks, at each site. Additionally, day-to-day management and software provisioning is in IT’s hands via an SD-WAN controller. Two areas to evaluate when considering DIY vs. managed SD-WAN include your in-house expertise and your management and monitoring needs.

Evaluate your in-house IT capabilities

In-house IT talent may understand the connectivity and security needs of your organizations, but SD-WAN demands a specialized skill set and can come with a steep learning curve.

Some key questions to ask about the team

  • Do you have an adequate number of IT professionals you can dedicate to designing, installing, configuring, monitoring, managing and optimizing the network, including updates and fixes?
  • Thinking about skill sets and appetites, do you want your team to be managing and monitoring the network vs. pursuing more strategic initiatives?
  • Are there competing responsibilities and priorities the team will have to navigate to ensure you’re getting the most out of your investment?

Assess your SD-WAN management and monitoring needs

There’s the installation and implementation phase of an SD-WAN implementation—access configuration, bandwidth prioritization and endpoint installation—but your team will also need to manage and monitor the network long term.

Some key questions to ask about management and monitoring

  • Is your organization committed to specific service-level agreements (SLAs)? What are you prepared to deliver?
  • Are you comfortable managing network complexity (multiple solutions, interfaces, providers)?
  • How important is a “single pane of glass” portal?
  • Who will manage the network post-launch? DIY? Co-manage? Offload completely?

For more questions to ask before deploying SD-WAN on your own, check out this article.

What to look for in a managed SD-WAN service provider

By working with a managed SD-WAN service provider, IT departments can circumvent many of the challenges they encounter during an SD-WAN implementation. A third-party service provider with a proven track record of successful deployments can bolster the IT team by facilitating access configuration, bandwidth prioritization and endpoint installations to help ensure your project stays on track and on budget.

75% of those with SD-WAN in use are opting for a co-managed or fully managed solution.3

Circle graph shows that 75% of those with SD-WAN in use are opting for a co-managed or fully managed solution.

Fully managed SD-WAN:

Buys SD-WAN service from a service provider that deploys and manages the SD-WAN solution and related network services, end-to-end.

Co-managed SD-WAN:

Buy SD-WAN service from a service provider that deploys the SD-WAN solution and related network services, and co-manages the solution along with your internal IT team.

Do-it-yourself (DIY) SD-WAN:

Procure SD-WAN hardware (and software) directly from the vendor and have the internal network/IT team deploy and manage.

Core competencies: Is the service provider deeply rooted in legacy technologies or do they live and breathe cloud-ready solutions?

Experience with SD-WAN implementations: Does the provider have a volume of successful deployments that span geography, size and vertical?

Credibility of provider: Is the vendor well-regarded and recognized in the industry for SD-WAN? Do analysts agree?

Single pane of glass portal: Does the vendor’s SD-WAN management portal offer deep network visibility and holistic control? Is it easy to use? Does it offer actionable insights on issues and performance optimization?

Right-fit solutions: Does the provider offer expert guidance, choice of solutions and contract terms to fit your needs today and scale with your ambitions?

Professional Services: Does the provider offer professional services or white-glove options to assist with inventory and migration planning, implementation and configuration?

Best practice 3: Pinpoint your where and when

Once you’ve determined who will design, install and manage SD-WAN in the long run, you need a migration plan. Understanding exactly what you have in place now—as well as what you might need in six months, one year, three years—will help avoid hang-ups like project delays and budget overruns.

Take stock of your network components and plan forward

A well-thought-out SD-WAN migration plan centers around three things: sites, access and security.

1. Sites

First, take stock of site locations, along with the number of remote users, applications and devices that require network access.

2. Access

Next, think about your access technologies:

  • What’s there now and how will you be evolving it (e.g. MPLS circuit to broadband)?
  • How redundant are your connections—and how redundant will they need to be—to support your current and future business demands?
  • Are there alternate access connections to provide redundancy?
  • Will your SD-WAN service provider deliver and manage all the third-party access options?
  • Will wireless connectivity be available when needed?

3. Security

Finally, how are you securing your remote users and sites? How will existing security solutions play (or not) with SD-WAN? Will you require additional layers of protection as your business changes or new sites/users are onboarded?

A well-thought-out SD-WAN migration plan centers around 3 things: sites, access and security.

Assess time to SD-WAN deployment and impact on IT teams and others

Like any complex technology solution, SD-WAN is not a flip-the-switch activity, and you’ll need to set expectations with other decision-makers. Because SD-WAN is a software-defined overlay, there’s no need to rip and replace what you already have, but it’s important to understand whether there will be any downtime for customers and employees. Will there be new processes and workflows for your teams to learn or training your IT team will require?

Being thorough and practical while balancing business demands will ensure you keep your project on track and keep a cool head about it.

Get SD-WAN deployment right with a proof of concept

Getting it right in the early stages of SD-WAN deployment is essential to maximizing return on investment (ROI) and minimizing risk. For many enterprise organizations, a hybrid network—often comprised of MPLS-based circuits and highly available and cost-effective broadband—is a viable solution that balances existing capital investment and current and future business demands.

Deployment plans and timelines will look different for each organization, with existing vendor contracts and digital transformation strategies guiding when a new SD-WAN site will be turned on. Large enterprises and organizations with high sensitivity to critical application performance often start with an SD-WAN proof of concept (PoC) on up to 10 sites to observe, adjust and optimize traffic performance before scaling up.

Large enterprises and organizations with high sensitivity to critical application performance often start with an SD-WAN proof of concept (PoC).

Get help building and scaling your SD-WAN

By aligning around three key SD-WAN best practices, you’ll set your team up for ongoing success with SD-WAN. Working with an experienced managed service provider can make all the difference. Windstream Enterprise has partnered with two of the leading SD-WAN technology providers, VMware and Fortinet, to offer an award-winning SD-WAN solution that’s right for your business. SD-WAN Concierge features an intuitive single-pane-of-glass management portal.

Want to see some successful SD-WAN implementations? Check out these customer stories in key industries including healthcare, financial services and retail.

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  1. SD-WAN Market Research Report. P&S Intelligence. August 2020. Accessed 1/12/22.
  2. New B2B Buying Journey & Its Implication for Sales. Gartner. Accessed 1/12.22.
  3. SD-WAN End User Survey, U.S. Frost & Sullivan. Accessed 1/12/22.