In late September, EarthLink announced the launch of an SD-WAN service based on technology from VeloCloud, an SD-WAN startup. EarthLink is one of several providers that have undertaken a partnership with the startup; others include AT&T and Vonage.
I had the opportunity to speak with Mike Frane, EarthLink’s senior director of product management to find out how and why it chose VeloCloud, whether the new service will affect MPLS demand, and where marketing hype doesn’t match reality. Here’s what I learned.
EarthLink provides network and voice services to organizations of all sizes, particularly in healthcare, finance, and retail. The company offers multiple access options, including MPLS, IPSec, Ethernet, cable, and wireless. It also has services for security, managed LAN, and unified communications, all delivered through a customer portal.
Frane said the company went through extensive research to choose an SD-WAN platform. It started by reviewing white papers from a long list of vendors to get a sense of features and capabilities.
EarthLink engineers then visited eight to ten SD-WAN vendors to see lab demos.
“There was a lot of swinging for the fences,” said Frane. “A lot of them were marketing what they were going to do, not what they could do. We wanted to make sure that before we got our solution on a certain technology, they could at least do what they said.”
Based on those visits, three vendors were invited into EarthLink’s lab for further testing, as well as alpha and beta trials. VeloCloud was the final choice.
“We liked their API structure,” said Frane. “We want to integrate the SD-WAN solution into our portal.” VeloCloud’s APIs will “let us integrate with their orchestrator for enhanced capabilities, analytics, and management.”
“The other was their roadmap,” noted Frane. “They had consistently showed us how they hit their historical roadmaps.”
Frane said his customers are interested in SD-WAN because many of them already have MPLS circuits with broadband for backup, but don’t like having connectivity sit idle. “We see interest in the active-active option and routing based on the real-time performance of the link.”
And once the service is in place, customers are getting more visibility into bandwidth consumption. “We see customers who are shocked at the applications running over their network,” said Frane.
“Historically the business comes to them and says ‘We need more bandwidth’ because a particular application is getting choked.”
But instead of spending more money, customers can tweak policies to limit the use of applications like YouTube and prioritize business applications.
Frane also says customers get more information about how their connections are performing. Customers can use the SD-WAN service on connections from multiple providers (for instance, an MPLS connection from EarthLink, and broadband connections from Comcast or Charter), and will have performance statistics on hand to help address problems, enforce service agreements, or negotiate deals.
A Long Tail For MPLS
I asked Frane if he was concerned whether an SD-WAN offering would erode the demand for MPLS.
A common claim about SD-WAN is that customers can cut costs by jettisoning expensive MPLS connections in favor of cheaper broadband connections. SD-WAN would address performance concerns of best-effort broadband by employing path optimization techniques, and dynamically moving traffic to the best-performing link in a bundle.
Frane says SD-WAN will eat into MPLS demand, but “not with the speed the vendors would have you believe. MPLS will have a very long tail.”
“Early on, we saw through a lot of the marketing fluff. Ninety percent cost savings is an exaggeration. We see SD-WAN as a cost-avoidance play,” he said.
Beware The Hype
SD-WAN vendors tout ease of deployment and zero-touch provisioning as key benefits. Frane said that’s partially true.
“In a greenfield deployment, SD-WAN is easy. If it’s a new location and you don’t care about your IP schema, it’s great.”
“If you go into a brownfield where you’re overlaying on top of someone else or replacing something, and there’s an MPLS router you have to move, there are complications. Once it’s up and running, it’s easy. But the marketing is overhyped on how easy it is to deploy in the first place.”
Frane said EarthLink offers professional services to help customers make the necessary network changes so the SD-WAN service will function the way it needs to.
The SD-WAN market is relatively new, but it’s attracted a great deal of attention from tech analysts, media, and potential customers. It’s also got investors and corporate leaders eyeing steep growth in a networking sector that’s otherwise relatively flat.
For instance, IDC predicts an annual compound growth rate of 90% for SD-WAN between 2015 and 2020.
Frane sees serious interest in the market as well.
“This is the best product launch I’ve had in eight years,” he said. “We have more pent-up demand than any I’ve seen.”