The SD-WAN platforms from Windstream and EarthLink evolved along the same lines, and the two companies eventually settled on the same vendor prior to their merger.
That synchronicity made things a lot easier when Windstream Communications Inc. (Nasdaq: WIN) completed its acquisition of EarthLink Inc. (Nasdaq: ELNK) in early February. (See Windstream Buys EarthLink for $673M.)
Mike Frane, Windstreamís vice president of product management, told Telco Transformation that later this month the Windstreamís SD-WAN business will receive what he refers to as a "boost" by launching a fuller integration of the combined company's platform.
Frane discussed the EarthLink acquisition and its impact on the SD-WAN initiative with Telco Transformation.
Telco Transformation: Pre-acquisition, how did the EarthLink and Windstream SD-WAN platforms evolve?
Mike Frane: EarthLink started looking at SD-WAN about 20 months ago. They went through a process whereby they identified the players in the space. If you recall back then, there were fewer players calling themselves SD-WAN vendors.
EarthLink did an evaluation against a set of criteria published by the Open Networking User Group (ONUG) to identify the leaders in the space. They then visited multiple companies to see the technology working in the lab and then further brought two companies into their own lab to test them and move into an alpha trial or alpha release with some customers. That was about a year and a half ago. They started alpha testing in March of last year.
Sort of concurrently, Windstream followed a similar course of action, evaluating the market, understanding the key players and defining the success criteria for SD-WAN vendors.
EarthLink went to market a little earlier than Windstream did. In the August/September timeframe of last year it became generally available.
Windstream went to launch in December so EarthLink had a few months on us. (See Windstream Sees AI Winds Blowing Toward SD-WAN and EarthLink Jumps on SD-WAN Trend.)
TT: Since the two companies were talking acquisition, was the timeframe such that you could coordinate vendor selection?
MF: There was no coordination between the two companies. Luckily for me, both companies chose the same vendor independently of each other, running through their own selection criteria. The criteria were very similar because the mindset and the vision were in high alignment, which is one of the reasons that the merger came about. We had very similar strategies as far as how we saw SD-WAN and unified-communications-as-a-service [UCaaS] moving in the market. And we were able to capitalize on the fact that both companies had individually gone down the same road with the technology. So putting them together made a lot of sense.
TT: Who is the vendor?
MF: VeloCloud Networks Inc. is the vendor that both companies picked.
TT: So Windstream and EarthLink chose VeloCloud for the same reasons?
MF: I would say that the reasons were materially the same. Both companies wanted to develop a superior customer experience around the platform. The VeloCloud solution allows us to integrate the SD-WAN very tightly with our MPLS, our UCaaS and our security platforms. The three are still great drivers for the business today.
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Can you tell us about the integration process since the acquisition?
MF: We're able to take the best of both worlds. Both companies had a unique customer experience so we've been able to merge those together. I'm not going to say we're launching the combined product in July because I would do a disservice to what Windstream already has built. I've taken to using the term "boost." July is going be our SD-WAN boost, which is where we'll really see the marriage of the two experiences based on the same technology to provide a really enhanced customer experience for our end users.
TT: Do you have a date for that?
MF: The end of July.
TT: Once the boost occurs, will the legacy EarthLink SD-WAN and the Windstream SD-WAN be identical?
MF: The experience that you'll have with either the heritage EarthLink or the Windstream solution will be fundamentally the same. We are aligning to a single goal for acquisition, solution and service set. Over time, we will end up folding the two together but for the foreseeable future, the experiences will be fundamentally the same.
TT: What is the sweet-spot-sized company for Windstream's SD-WAN?
MF: When we first got into this, I would say the medium-sized, larger small medium-sized businesses with five to ten locations and smaller enterprises with hundreds of locations were the sweet spots. In reality we found that because of the technology we're able to improve the application performance over single connections. We are finding that benefit in the UCaaS arena.
So, both companies have UCaaS products and we're seeing a tremendous attach rate between the UcaaS and SD-WAN services. I would still say that the sweet spot is the larger SMB and small- to medium-size enterprises, but the technology itself is extensible -- as I mentioned -- down that curve in customer size as well as upwards.
TT: Is there an actual technical embeddedness or link that leads to UCaaS being closely related to SD-WAN or is it just that UCaaS is a cool product that solves a lot of problems for enterprises and fits well on top of SD-WAN? In other words, how deeply are they related?
MF: Yes, UCaaS is a cool application and provides really great capabilities. SD-WAN can enhance the performance of UCaaS, through various mechanisms. Delivering UCaaS in conjunction with SD-WAN provides a superior experience.
The way that we've architected our specific SD-WAN with the integration into our core network and into our core UCaaS platforms allows us to further enhance the benefits of Windstream, SD-WAN and UCaaS together. Because we control both, we are able to provide an even better application experience, which leads to a superior customer experience.
TT: What do you say to companies to convince them that itís a good idea to retain you to run their SD-WAN infrastructure as opposed to just getting bandwidth and doing it over the top?
MF: There are fundamentally two different models for SD-WAN. There's the DIY [do it yourself] model and there's the service provider model. What we're finding is that customers are gravitating to the service provider model, even though the technology vendors will say how easy SD-WAN is and how simple it is to deploy.
For customers who are moving to a hybrid network environment where they have UCaaS, MPLS and security platforms, the integration of SD-WAN into that brownfield environment is not as straight forward as a greenfield Internet-only environment. They could go out and get commodity broadband from anyone. But finding the broadband providers, if you have a distributed network, is not incidental. If you have multiple providers you have to work with multiple bills. You can go to broadband aggregators but you still typically have to do a lot of additional work when it comes to supporting the service and making sure that trouble tickets are handled.
TT: How would you characterize the momentum on how companies are deploying SD-WAN?
MF: We've definitely seen an increase in the number of customers who are less interested in DIY and more interested in the service provider model. As the network becomes more and more part and parcel of the businesses operations, it starts to look like a commodity.
Managing that if you're a business owner is not going to drive value into your business. So, they've started the transition and say, "Hey, service provider, manage this. If you need me, I'm here and we can interact, but I expect it to be up, I expect all of my application to be optimized and that I am getting the best performance possible so that I can go focus on [such things as managing] my restaurant or deploying tablets to all my doctors so that they can do their jobs more efficiently."
— Carl Weinschenk, Contributing Writer, Telco Transformation