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Software-defined wide area network (SD-WAN) platforms change the way enterprises build and operate their networks. At its best, SD-WAN abstracts and automates underlying network complexity. Enterprise administrators leave behind the world of router configurations, and graduate to an overlay of centralized controllers, drawing on applications-layer visibility and policy management that adjusts automatically to underlying network conditions.

But many enterprise administrators are under the false impression that, once SD-WAN tucks layer 3 routing into a network underlay, managing networks becomes easy. Some SD-WAN platform vendors play to this notion. They market deployment as "plug and play," with support for "zero touch provisioning."

Ovum finds that, based on what they heard, many enterprises believe that SD-WAN is easy to use. Three-quarters of multinational enterprises evaluating SD-WAN expect to manage it themselves. That contrasts starkly with multinational enterprises that already implemented commercial SD-WAN. Far fewer actually go it alone. The solid majority (about 60%) partner with providers, subscribing to fully managed or co-managed services.

What happens to enterprises between evaluating SD-WAN and making a purchase decision? Anecdotally, some administrators trialing SD-WAN realize these platforms are not so straightforward and reconsider their options before they make the leap. Service providers also have plenty of examples of enterprises that started to make the leap, moving from managed private WAN to an all-internet/self-managed SD-WAN model, only to reverse course rapidly after encountering issues.

It is tempting for administrators to believe that, with all the industry disruption in the air, private WANs under single-provider contracts are finally coming to an end. The reality is not that simple. Someone still needs to manage multiple underlying networks and access providers; someone needs to be a fast responder to customer premises equipment or SD-WAN controller issues; and someone needs to monitor and predict applications behavior, and adjust underlying networks so they meet the needs of the SD-WAN overlay.

Veteran enterprise IT managers should by now recognize this all-too-familiar pattern. First, the enterprise decides to start a task in-house because it seems quick and easy. That quick and easy task turns into a growing headache. The enterprise IT department allocates more and more time and resources to this noncore activity. Eventually, a review exposes the resource drain, and the enterprise out-tasks or fully offloads service management.

Some enterprises consider it strategic to their core business to build, operate, and manage their own WAN. It completely makes sense for these companies to do everything themselves, however costly and complex. But most enterprises just need a network to perform.

Whatever their plan, enterprises should not underestimate the complexity of migrating to a new technology platform. Even if the new platform lives up to claims, other interdependent systems and processes can make change anything but easy.

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