The Telco’s View: The Future of Managed SD-WAN Services in the Middle East
October 2023, by Ishaq Mohamad, Head of Managed Services, KSA
SD-WAN adoption is surging in the Middle East as enterprises seek managed services from carriers. While additive to MPLS, SD-WAN enables hybrid networks. Telcos are overcoming challenges like multi-vendor complexity, legacy systems integration and hybrid network management to deliver secure, agile SD-WAN services. Cloud-based security, service automation and modern platforms will define the future of managed networking in the region.
Software-defined WAN (SD-WAN) adoption is accelerating rapidly across the Middle East, driven by digital transformation initiatives and cloud migration. Enterprises are now looking to telecom operators and systems integrators for managed SD-WAN services rather than do-it-yourself (DIY) implementations.
In the UAE and Saudi Arabia, carriers view SD-WAN as largely additive to existing MPLS networks, though new MPLS deployments are steadily decreasing. SD-WAN solutions help pull through new broadband connections, enabling hybrid network architectures especially for smaller branch sites.
SD-WAN Services in Key Vertical Industries
Certain vertical industries are leading adoption of managed SD-WAN services in the Gulf region:
- Retail – With multiple storefronts, warehouses and delivery hubs, retailers need flexible solutions to connect distributed locations. SD-WAN allows setting up site-to-site connectivity quickly. Leading retailers in UAE and KSA are deploying SD-WAN to enable omnichannel experiences and inventory management across locations.
- Manufacturing – Manufacturers have globally distributed sites with varying needs. SD-WAN provides centralized control and ability to add/move sites rapidly. It delivers reliable failover at production facilities along with connectivity across supply chains. Local manufacturers are implementing SD-WAN to improve productivity and asset utilization.
- Healthcare – Healthcare providers need to connect hospitals, clinics, doctor’s offices and other facilities to share patient information and enable telehealth. SD-WAN allows setting up a unified healthcare ecosystem. In the UAE, SD-WAN is being adopted to link primary care facilities with remote telehealth solutions.
- Financial Services – Banks and insurance companies need secure, robust connections between branches, data centers and headquarters. SD-WAN enables enforcing fine-grained policies to segment traffic. Regional financial enterprises are leveraging SD-WAN to modernize bank connectivity and reduce network outages.
- Education – Academic institutions require linking multiple campuses and buildings across different metro areas. SD-WAN simplifies connecting lecture halls, dorms, libraries, stadiums in a scalable manner. Universities in the region are deploying SD-WAN to create better digital learning environments.
- Government – Federal and state governments have agencies distributed state-wide often in remote locations. SD-WAN facilitates extending the network in a flexible way. Smart city projects in the Gulf are utilizing SD-WAN for connecting traffic systems, surveillance cameras and IoT sensors.
Overcoming SD-WAN Implementation Challenges
While customer interest in SD-WAN is accelerating, telecom operators face a few key challenges in delivering managed SD-WAN successfully:
- Multi-Vendor Environments – Supporting multiple SD-WAN vendor solutions drives significant operational complexity. Each platform has different interfaces, data models and management tools. A unified orchestration system is critical to reduce this complexity in multi-vendor settings.
- Legacy Systems Integration – Inadequate integration between SD-WAN systems and existing OSS/BSS hinders rapid service delivery and impacts customer experience. APIs and standardized models are required for fulfilment automation.
- Hybrid Network Management – Managing network performance across hybrid topologies like SD-WAN, MPLS and internet is hugely complex. Advanced analytics and correlation engines are needed for unified control.
- SLA and Performance Monitoring – Validating SLAs and monitoring both underlay and overlay performance is difficult but essential. Granular visibility and multilayer root cause analysis is challenging currently.
- In-House Skill Gaps – Many telcos lack networking talent with expertise in SD-WAN platforms, orchestration systems and automation tools required for managed services. Investing in training and partnerships is necessary to bridge these gaps.
Shifting SD-WAN Security to the Cloud
With enterprises moving more applications to SaaS and cloud, security models for SD-WAN also need to evolve. Carriers are shifting from in-line network security to cloud-delivered Secure Access Service Edge (SASE).
SASE convergences SD-WAN capabilities with cloud-based security like secure web gateways (SWG), firewall as a service (FWaaS), Cloud Access Security Brokers (CASB) and zero trust network access (ZTNA). By 2025, 50% of SD-WAN deployments in MENA are forecast to have an integrated SASE component.
Telcos currently leverage third-party security partnerships to deliver managed SD-WAN. But as SASE adoption accelerates, they will need to build own integrated offerings or align with SASE platform providers. A key benefit of SASE is flexibility to scale security on-demand while reducing appliance sprawl.
Top Automation Priorities for SD-WAN Management
To address operational challenges and accelerate service delivery, carriers are prioritizing automating key aspects of the SD-WAN lifecycle:
- Monitoring – Performance monitoring of underlay and overlay networks is essential but highly complex in SD-WAN environments. Automated data collection and analytics are required.
- Provisioning – Automating SD-WAN site onboarding, configuration and policy setting up speeds up the provisioning process and reduces errors.
- Activation – Automated testing and validation of new SD-WAN site addition or changes reduces truck rolls and ensures quality.
- Assurance – Automating event correlation, anomaly detection, and root cause analysis simplifies issue diagnosis and resolution.
- Reporting – Automated SLA measurement, multi-layer performance reporting and dashboarding enhances customer experience.
Advanced analytics, AI/ML and closed-loop automation will enable telcos to significantly improve SD-WAN service agility and reduce manual processes through these efforts.
How Leading Operators are Transforming SD-WAN Delivery
Top telcos in the Middle East are taking a platform-based approach to addressing SD-WAN service delivery challenges:
Unified Orchestration Platform – Du has developed an integrated on-demand orchestration platform to automate fulfillment across services like SD-WAN, mobility, cloud connect etc. This provides a seamless experience and faster delivery.
Programmable Network Infrastructure – STC has launched an SDN-enabled programmable backbone that allows programmatic control of network resources to optimize application performance and reduce delays.
OSS/BSS Modernization – Etisalat has consolidated multiple legacy systems into a new digital BSS/OSS stack built using microservices and open APIs to enable rapid rollout of digital services like SD-WAN on top.
Autonomous Operations – Zain KSA has implemented self-operating networks that automate activities like fault management, SLA assurance, performance monitoring and security management, enabling “hands-off” SD-WAN operations.
AI-driven Customer Experience – Omantel analyzes user data and activities to provide personalized SD-WAN offerings and proactive recommendations that enhance customer experience.
These carriers are using next-gen platforms, automation and AI to transform network operations in alignment with digital ambitions. Other providers need to consider similar strategic initiatives to succeed with managed SD-WAN.
Key Recommendations for Delivering Managed SD-WAN
For telecom operators planning to grow their SD-WAN services portfolio, here are 5 key recommendations:
- Take an ecosystem approach – Build partnerships with SD-WAN vendors, security providers and system integrators to accelerate capability development.
- Invest in talent and training – Hire software and automation experts. Upskill network teams on SD-WAN and virtualization.
- Modernize IT systems – Refresh OSS, BSS and inventory management systems to be cloud-native. Implement standard catalogs and APIs.
- Prioritize automation – Focus on automating provisioning, lifecycle operations, monitoring, analytics and assurance.
- Be proactive on security – Adopt a SASE framework spanning network and cloud for integrated protection.
Software-defined networking represents the future of enterprise connectivity. Telecom operators in the Middle East have an opportunity to enable digital transformation and address new market demands by offering secure, agile and fully-managed SD-WAN services.
With the right platforms, skills and automation, carriers can transform network operations to effectively deliver SD-WAN while creating new revenue streams and retaining their customer base. The path forward involves ecosystems, talent building and using next-gen technologies like cloud, analytics and AI to their advantage.
Contact our experts today to evaluate your needs and discuss how SD-WAN can benefit your enterprise.