BT's Sabey on the state of play for SD-WAN

BT is offering a new SD-WAN managed service using Cisco's technology. (Pixabay)

Last week BT announced the global launch of a new software-defined wide area network (SD-WAN) managed service using Cisco technology.  Among other capabilities, BT Connect Cisco SD-WAN gives customers with a view of data flows across their WAN, allowing them to dynamically optimize the traffic to suit their business needs while also balancing performance and cost.

"We're really excited about that solution and Cisco is a key partner of BT’s," said Jim Sabey, head of BT Networking and compute sales specialists. "We see Cisco in some way, shape or form in approximately 90% of our customers. We’re excited to be managing and supporting Cisco SD-WAN."

BT rolled out one of its SD-WAN services, which it calls BT Agile Connect, in September by working with Nokia's Nuage Networks and Cisco. BT has also launched Cisco IWAN and Cisco Meraki SD-WAN.

With his focus on BT's networking portfolio, Sabey has been at the forefront in learning what his customers want in regards to SD-WAN, and he also has insight on the market in general. Here are some of his observations in a Q&A with Fierce Telecom.

FierceTelecom: BT has deployed SD-WAN, but what else needs to be done going forward?

Jim Sabey: If you look at the market today, there are about 30 companies or so that classify themselves as SD-WAN providers. Really, what else needs to be done for SD-WAN is solving some of the misconceptions. All the SD-WAN offerings, there's a misconception that they really deliver the same capability. When you actually start diving into it more and more, it's really not the case. An understanding of the business drivers for WAN transformation is critical and will really help organizations, at least that’s what we're seeing a lot of at BT.

What we’re seeing is a lot of the traditional SD-WAN providers are pushing their CPE, their SD-WAN products. What we're seeing is that network transformation projects shouldn't start with the technology, but often they do. Organizations really need to find their business drivers and objectives because SD-WAN has been sold as a promise for several things, faster, better, cheaper, more agile, etc.

It can be some of those things, but what we're seeing in the last couple of years since we first came to market with our first SD-WAN solution is it's more about having a clear understanding of the existing infrastructure and application because that’s often been over looked.  Customers are more focused on the cost savings. In reality, cost savings may not exactly necessarily be there. Really, another thing about SD-WAN just in general is that an evaluation of the available resources within a customer’s organization actually helps the customer define that management model.

To come full circle, what else needs to be done for SD-WAN is really a solving of that misconception. Also what are you going to do with all of the analytics and insight that you have with SD-WAN? What are you going to do with all this data now that you have better visibility into it? There's a continual focus on things like AI and analytics because they are really critical.

FierceTelecom: Did you get a chance to review some of the MEF's proposals in regards to defining SD-WAN and creating standards for it?

Sabey: I haven't read it in detail to be honest with you. I wouldn’t disagree that there needs to be more of a standard around it. 

In the last year, for example, we've seen VeloCloud be purchased by VMware. We’ve seen Viptela be purchased by Cisco. Right now you have too many companies, in my view, to actually be able to standardize, but as that list gets dwindled more and more, and you actually have more of a consolidated feel, then with the MEF and some of the other authorities we're going to see more of a standardization across SD-WAN. Again, there's a misconception about SD-WAN and what it delivers, but it's actually an interesting market right now.

FierceTelecom: What have you learned since you launched SD-WAN, either from the engineering side or from customers? 

Sabey: Over the last couple of years, there's really been a lot of excitement regarding software-defined wide area networking and marketing hype about how simple SD-WAN solutions were and should be. In talking to customers, we've really learned five key market drivers.

Managing multiple network providers is the first one and then coping with an explosion of traffic is the second use case or market driver. Then the third one would be managing large branch networks. Then the fourth point is securely managing critical sites. For example, in the oil and gas industry, things like that. Then the last one would be what we would call boosting flexibility and control with virtual network functions.

Some things we've learned since we’ve launched SD-WAN are some of the tactical things about better ways to deploy it. We actually have 100-plus checkpoint lists that we can offer to our customers as well from when you're going from a traditional MPLS type of network to more of a hybrid or an SD-WAN type of network.

Look, SD-WAN is new to a lot of people, especially to the organizations and the customers, so it's really neat to see some of the insights that we've seen.