Comcast Business exec: What customers like and don't like about SD-WAN

LOS ANGELES—Customers of all stripes want SD-WAN services, but they are confused by the Baskin-Robbins-like number of flavors that are on the market today, according to a Comcast Business executive.

Speaking at the MEF19 conference Tuesday morning, Bob Victor, senior vice president of product management for Comcast Business, said that vendor assessment was one of major challenges cited by SD-WAN customers. Every customer that wants to deploy SD-WAN comes with their own unique challenges and some of those challenges can continue as SD-WAN is scaled across the various vendor flavors.

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Comcast Business launched its SD-WAN service two years ago on its software-defined networking-based ActiveCore platform, Comcast Business by working with Versa Networks. Comcast Business booted up a managed router virtual network functions (VNF) offering on ActiveCore in April

Victor said initial SD-WAN users struggle with support, since most of their current IT staffs don't have the skills and experience.

"Our customers oftentimes come to us having the made SD-WAN decision," said Victor, who is on MEF's board of directors. "Our customers come to us with challenges of their own with their IT staff and support for those platforms and want our help. The challenge for us is how do we scale that support across a multiplicity of different platforms? It's difficult for us as service providers to provide that benefit of scale to customers treating each of the SD-WAN providers or platforms as a one off."

While quality of service (QoS), along with segmentation, was one of the most cited benefits of deploying SD-WAN, QoS was a challenge when it came to voice services. Victor said MEF's standard and certification programs help Comcast Business address the issues of helping customers deal with their challenges.

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Despite the obstacles, when asked if their SD-WAN services lived up to their expectations they gave it an 8.5 out of 10. What made SD-WAN successful to customers was the ability to have network inventory, the capability to have a "golden config" that includes "define it, test it and then lock," and "going slow to go fast" in order to scale out SD-WAN. Customers also benefit from having an operational model in place.

Among the pleasant surprises, customers liked the additional reporting and analytics that SD-WAN provided and their ability to increase their bandwidth.

"The ability to draw more information and more data off the network was something they didn't have access to in the past and they found it very helpful," Victor said.  "Bandwidth; more is always better. I think the customers feel the constraint has been lifted as they increase the capacity in the underlay as they deploy these SD-WAN overlays."

Proof-of-concepts trials (POCs) allowed customers to see the benefits of SD-WAN, and, on the flip side, weren't surprised by what they didn't get when they deployed it, according to Victor.

"In general, it worked very, very well," Victor said. 

Comcast Business SD-WAN customers would like more troubleshooting tools to get to the root of problems and solve them faster, and a more simplified digital experience.

"Customers like fact that SD-WAN was a transition that you can put on top of MPLS," Victor said. "But as customers get into these networks, they actually want to move off of the legacy network faster and getting the whole journey has been perhaps a little more challenging than what they've expected."

Victor said that while customers appreciate knowing there's a problem, or being alerted that there's a potential problem, it would be even better if problems were fixed proactively.

"Customers, as they as they face their own operational challenges and labor challenges, want the network to do more," he said.