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Selecting a top UK MPLS Provider

I was recently interviewed by a new business startup forum about some of the key aspects of procuring WAN connectivity in the UK. The transcript from that interview has been sent to me for public domain release. I’ve pasted the content here. (Any questions, please let me know)

Readers embarking on a procurement project may be interested in the Techtarget version of our WAN Providers procurement Mindmap.

So, thanks for heading over Robert. Tell us a little about yourself.

Me: I’ve worked with and for major global service providers for well over a decade, mainly in a presales environment. I kept seeing the same typical issues and problems occurring within the WAN procurement process mainly due to commoditisation of WAN services, especially with UK MPLS market place, less with Global MPLS providers.

Interviewer: The UK MPLS providers market place is so competitive, for IT Managers buying WAN services, how to they make the right decision?

Me: Yes, the UK market can get a little crazy. We were asked to work with a client recently where they wanted to engage with around 15 of the top UK WAN providers. In this instance, we declined to help simply because the buying process was clearly based on a commodity decision i.e. just the end cost of the MPLS solution. I’m not saying for one minute that WAN costs do not matter but if price is your sole objective then your project may fail in one way shape or form. Making the right decision requires analysis of four major areas which include technical, process, strategy and commercials. In short, organisations must consider the specifics of their business to ensure they are aligned to the service providers in question. We call this an organisational approach to WAN procurement. I think you’ll agree, that’s a nice title 😉

Interviewer: Are you seeing any major changes in the market place?

Me: Yes and no. Yes, there’s advances in technology and lower cost of bandwidth. However, on the negative side, the major issue with UK and Global WAN providers really surrounds process. The majority of MPLS service providers are very much focussed on building bigger and better networks and allocate heavy front end sales force investment. Don’t get me wrong, investing in the network is great as the overall reach and performance increases and we all benefit. But, the process side of WAN providers is really the thorn in their customers side. As an example, adds, moves and changes are normally difficult to process with protracted delays. The reason is because the workflows are out dated and cumbersome and not at all suited to getting things done quickly and efficiently. We often hear clients talk about simple change requests which have taken up to a month to complete.

Interviewer: Based on your thoughts on process, are clients able to mitigate against this type of problem?

Me: It’s a good question. I think there is an answer. It’s all down to transparency. Within our sales process, the objective is to really gain an understanding of the end to end workflows a service provider goes through to deliver an actual service. Once you have an understanding, company and the service provider are in a position to build a process to help get around and delay caused. We have one client where they have pre populated forms which are saved on a shared cloud storage system. The forms also include video content so that anybody within their enterprise business is able to follow a change request through from end to end. We’ve also project planned the entire process so that our client knows what to expect in terms of timescales and delivery. This might appear to be a little overboard but it works and we are seeing huge improvements working with the largest of service providers.

Interviewer: It must be difficult to get through the marketing of service providers, are their any areas where service providers are not transparent on a regular basis?

Me: Goodness, there’s a fair few areas I could talk about. Let me think about maybe the top three.

One of the biggest areas is coverage. I think it’s safe to say that the major service providers offer a decent level of coverage throughout the UK but there are providers which claim to have 98% coverage but it’s arguable whether or not they are being completely transparent. If we consider both UK and Global MPLS, there’s a few elements. One is the access from your office building through to the local exchange and then to the providers edge network. The access from building to the providers network is called a tail circuit (apologies to those of you who already know this detail). The part you want to concentrate on is the providers edge network – we call this the PE (Provider Edge) which represents the first port of call into the providers MPLS WAN network. To get back to the point. Some UK WAN providers are suggesting they have 98% coverage but they are in fact talking about their ability to buy in wholesale tail circuit access and not the access into their MPLS core network. We’ve seen some providers running only a couple of main Provider Edge nodes in the UK which dramatically decreases their ability to offer you a diverse and resilient solution. I think this is a key area to focus on right now, we keep seeing this issue occur time and time again. When considering global connectivity, it is more about whether or not the international WAN provider has staff on the ground and actual connectivity rather than NNI agreements. NNI’s are network to network interconnects and describe the way in which a service provider will connect your site via a 3rd party network provider.

Another area is resource. With the cut backs in the economy, we’ve witnessed many providers cutting back office staff but increasing their sales force. What often happens is that the client signs up for their WAN and subsequently experiences delivery issues because there’s simply not enough staff within the service provider to keep track of each element. When coupled with systems which are not every slick in the first place, the delivery issues are compounded. It’s therefore important to ask for the particular number of staff in a given area and the amount of projects they look after at any one time.

I wanted to finally mention documentation. We hear service providers talking about a design pack. However, in reality, the documentation is not particularly comprehensive and there are no real defined processes to keep content up to date. And then throughout contract, nobody really understands the exact configuration. I will say that documentation is a real area where issues are caused. As an example, we worked with a client of one of the major global WAN service providers where their configuration had never been right throughout a 3 year WAN contract. Amazing but true. And yet the service provider in question had consistently said there were no issues with configuration and that everything was as it should be. We eventually confirmed this wasn’t the case and have an email from one of their engineers stating “this was the worst case of config he had ever seen”.

Interviewer: You mention documentation, how do you ensure the configs are correct?

Me: It’s difficult sometimes. The majority of service providers try and keep the router content to themselves in a managed environment. I think you have to insist on seeing the main content, without passwords of course, which will provide you with confidence that things are configured as you would like. We believe that documentation content should be clearly laid out and examples provided up front with workflows to keep your particular account up to date. It isn’t just the routers, it is all your references as well and details of any resiliency and diversity.

Interviewer: Do you have any general wise words for companies considering selecting from the top UK MPLS providers market?

Me: Sure. The goal has to be for the WAN to become an enabler to your business. The sad truth is that the WAN is normally a bottleneck. When we speak to clients expanding or introducing a new application, they are always concerned whether the WAN will adapt or cause delays to their project. In our minds, the WAN is another element to you business covering user productivity and providing a better service to your clients. Every business has a different route to market and your choice of service provider must be aligned to the specifics of your business. I’d start by analysing your existing WAN, work out where the strengths and weaknesses exist. So, work out what concerns there are and where the WAN has a detrimental impact to the business. The way we complete this work is to create an outline of each section and ask the team to input into the content which forms a report with a conclusion which describes how the WAN impacts the business. When engaging with new service providers, this initial work positions you well to begin discussion with potential top MPLS providers. If we consider that telecoms services are becoming commoditised but solutions are becoming increasingly complex with delay sensitive applications, IT management really must consider their next WAN carefully. With the data you collect from looking at existing services, your company strategy, applications and processes should be documented to build an agnostic set of requirements. How successful you will be in this endeavour will be dependent on expertise to be honest.

The basic point is this. Any UK WAN or Global WAN provider will not deliver their value at much deeper levels unless you also input into the sales process. Without aligning your business requirements with the service provider, you may end up deciding between a long list of features which can be very difficult and time consuming. The whole ethos behind this approach is to avoid commoditisation of your requirements. If you cannot define the differences between two different products then the only element left is price. Sure, it’s good to obtain great MPLS costs, but not at the expense of service. ~TNU.