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WAN managers must weigh using one or multiple service providers

Wide area network (WAN) managers need to think less like techies and more like business strategists when deciding whether to power the WAN with one or multiple service providers. Enterprises have to decide how much risk they can tolerate and weigh that against their budgets.

Wide area network (WAN) managers need to think less like techies and more like business strategists when deciding whether to power the WAN with one or multiple service providers. They have to decide how much risk they can tolerate and weigh that against their budgets.

We went from one to two [providers] because of Katrina ... Having two service providers gave me redundancy.
Dawn Kelly
The Research Institute for Children

"What does downtime cost you? You have to bring that business element into the equation," said John Stehman, a senior research analyst at Info-Tech Research. "Every business will find there is an acceptable amount of time they could be down if a problem occurs -- it could be four hours, it could be one hour, it could be zero hours. That should drive your backup purchasing."

Cost was the deciding factor in the past, Stehman said. But deciding how many service providers to use in a WAN has become more complicated with an increased focus on business continuity, the rapid pace of technology development, the uncertainty of the economy, and the widespread use of smartphones and cellular networks.

"There's no one answer," said Stehman, who recently wrote the research note How to Solve the Single versus Multi-Provider WAN Puzzle. "IT managers have to understand their business unit requirements ... IT doesn't really use the services. The business uses the services, and the business units bring in the revenue. If they're not bringing in the revenue, guess who goes bye-bye."

Multiple service providers offer WAN redundancy

Multiple service providers can ensure business continuity in a WAN if one provider's network collapses, whether it's due to a natural disaster or a clumsy construction worker outside a branch office or headquarters.

"If you have multiple providers, it's likely that you have better network diversity and better network availability," Stehman said. "There's a cost to an enterprise to support multiple carriers, and that cost can be beneficial if you have the [WAN] redundancy or better service qualities."

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Using multiple providers means enterprises pass up bundled services discounts, but the reduced risk should offset the extra cost -- especially if the cost difference is 15% or less, Stehman said.

That protection was worth the expense for Dawn Kelly, director of research information services at The Research Institute for Children at Children's Hospital New Orleans, as her region continues to recover from Hurricane Katrina, which devastated network infrastructure around the Gulf Coast when it hit in 2005.

"We went from one to two [providers] because of Katrina. The infrastructure was basically really spotty, and I found having two service providers gave me redundancy," said Kelly, who powers the WAN linking the research institute and the hospital with Sprint and the Louisiana Optical Network Initiative, a state-subsidized fiber optics network.

"It's been much easier if one line drops because I have some wiggle room to get that up and work with that ISP," she added. "It's almost seamless to the end user."

Small to medium-sized businesses looking to use multiple carriers can do so without breaking the bank, according to Jason Breyer, vice president of sales at Ecessa, a WAN optimization vendor based in Minneapolis. Aggregating a cable modem and DSL could be cheaper, faster and safer than relying on one T1 line, he said.

"You save money in most cases, and it's the easiest [disaster recovery and business continuity] planning you could do," Breyer said.

Just one service provider brings down WAN costs

Managing multiple providers has disadvantages that enterprises large and small may not be willing or able to stomach. Multiple contracts must be juggled, service levels can be inconsistent and billing mediation issues can suck time and resources, Stehman said.

In terms of cost, network managers also have to account for purchasing any new WAN management tools and training to deal with using two or more providers, he said. Also, if an enterprise's key operations occur only during normal business hours, having 24/7 support may not be worth the expense.

"These decisions are just becoming much more business factor-related," he said. "The day is going to come when all the technology is going to be the same and the business reasons are going to drive it."

Using a single service provider usually means enterprises can save money because a provider is willing to bundle services and negotiate a discount for its long-term loyalty, Stehman said. Management is simpler and support is typically faster "without multi-provider finger-pointing issues."

But enterprises that stay married to just one provider may find unforeseen network growth or reduction stymied by multi-year contracts that punish them with fees for violating terms, he warned. Ensuring that the contract contains a "technology refresh clause" to allow changes in the service mix without penalty is one avenue of protection.

Meanwhile, providers are also often willing to build WAN optimization into their services to make the one-stop-shop approach more appealing, said Kari Gerster, director of product marketing/verticals for Riverbed Technology, a WAN optimization vendor based in San Francisco.

"There is definitely a trend among service providers trying to offer a broader range of services to their end customers," Gerster said. "Instead of just providing [a dumb pipe], they're interested in providing more managed services."

Let us know what you think about the story; email: Jessica Scarpati, News Writer

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