Do More with Less: Save money when it comes time to renew your WAN contract

Most NetAdmins balk at looking for another WAN provider at contract renewal time. However, this article gives you reasons you might want to look around.

Let’s say your company has a WAN connection (or multiple WANs) and the contract term is coming up soon. Unless your existing network is causing you daily headaches, you want to get some free lunches, or you have a lot of free time, you probably are not interested in comparing multiple frame relay providers, their networks, their costs, and their proposals. The easiest response is just to renew the contract. However, I'm going to tell you why going through the evaluation process anyway can save you big money, while adding great features to your WAN.

Reasons to reconsider your WAN vendor
First, you should do the due diligence of investigating the alternate providers in order to attempt to save the company money. I just went through this time-consuming and cumbersome process and am now expecting to save my company a half million dollars over the next three years (including bundling voice, frame relay, Internet, and local services). Even if we weren’t in the era of budget cuts and layoffs, saving half a million dollars would be nothing to balk at. I am sure that if a company president or CEO got a whiff of the possibility to save $500K over three years, he or she would insist on going through the process.

Second, you need to find out what you may be missing. While you may think that “all the providers are about the same” or “we can’t go wrong with company X, why compare,” you may be very wrong. I know that you may not want to hear it or may not believe it, but I was a happy customer of one of the major telecommunications companies for nine years and thought that I probably had it better than most. However, after doing extensive shopping, it became apparent that there were a number of features that I didn’t have and, even worse, didn’t know existed. In other words, I didn’t know what I was missing.

Third, you need to keep your current provider "on its toes” and keep it competing for your business. You may think that you are getting the best deal (and you might be), but unless you investigate other providers, you have no way to know for sure. By getting alternate proposals, you can, at least, use these to negotiate with your current provider.

WAN requirements
There are an ever-growing number of new WAN alternatives, such as VPN tunneling (the most popular), metro-area Ethernet, and long-range wireless. However, as I mentioned in my previous article, choosing your WAN service should be done based on:
  • Type of traffic: Is it critical data? Is it delay sensitive?
  • Security requirements: Would you connect your 50 point-of-sale (POS) terminals or ATM machines using VPN tunnels over the Internet?
  • Cost requirements: Would you sacrifice Service Level Agreement (SLA) timeframes and guarantees for lower cost?
  • Simplicity of configuration and troubleshooting: Would you sacrifice ease of troubleshooting for the flexibility of both WAN and Internet access from each location?
  • Intangibles: Do you have a general comfort level with the technology and the vendor?

WAN features to consider
Some of the features that providers are currently offering include:
  • DSL-to-frame relay: This allows you to save on your local loop and get higher speeds by using DSL as your “last mile.” This is not a VPN tunnel, nor does the traffic go over the Internet. DSL-to-frame relay simply allows a DSL line to replace the normal “last mile” that connects your location to the local telco. This does have its downsides as well. With the offerings I have seen, the SLA looses much of its strength.
  • Near real-time network performance reporting: Some vendors will charge you extra for reporting features and some will not offer them at all. Finding near real-time performance reporting at low or no cost is something to keep your eye out for—and to value when you find it.
  • Quality and timely billing: Most IT professionals don’t anticipate what their bill will look like, nor do they ask the procedure and timeframe for an error to get corrected on their bills. However, when you have a WAN, you know that a bad billing system can make fixing errors very problematic and time-consuming, both for you and for your vendor. Ask to see the billing system ahead of time, get in writing how long billing errors will take to get corrected, and how long before you will be issued credits. It is amazing how many large telecom companies have horrible billing systems.
  • Consolidated Web-based billing: If you bundle services, being able to view your voice, data, Internet, and other services in a Web-based billing system is very handy. Also, being able to download the bill in a preferred format (such as Microsoft Excel) is a great feature.
  • Fractional voice, data, and Internet T-1 service: While this isn’t a new offering, being able to have a single T-1 line brought into a location and being able to slice and dice it for Internet access, data (such as frame relay), and voice services can save a company a great deal of money. A vendor that can offer all three of these may be able to cut your monthly bills.
  • Bundling of services: Some vendors have the ability to bundle more services than others. By bundling the most services under one vendor, you can usually save the most money. At my company, we bundled frame relay, local voice, long distance voice, Internet access, and collocation (Web hosting) services, all under one contract.

Final thoughts
Take a look at my list of recommendations for the process of selecting and evaluating new WAN providers in my previous article (which focuses on frame relay). In that article, I recommended a short contract time of two, but no more than three, years.

With your home long distance, you probably choose the provider that will give you the lowest rate and don’t consider much more. While WAN service for a company is more complex than selecting a home long distance service, if you think of them as being similar in that, periodically, you should review all the available rates and select the lowest rate (assuming most other features are similar), you will be put in a better mindset for going through this process.

Other than going directly to the particular vendors, there are some other choices that can be considered. There are “marketing reps” that function as the salespeople for various companies. Many of these will provide you with competitive quotes for the various companies that they represent and allow you to make the best choice. With this option, you still go directly to the vendor when you have a problem with the circuit later. However, at evaluation time, you only have to deal with one entity to get quotes from a variety of vendors. This is nice because, as you might know, dealing with sales teams from multiple companies for a large project such as this can take a lot of time.

There are also resellers of entire companies’ networks. These resellers will, for instance, sell you WorldCom or AT&T network services but will provide the billing and technical support for the solution. These companies are buying the frame relay service wholesale and marking it up to sell it to you retail. One benefit is that you get one bill and one point of contact, while you can, many times, still choose different solutions for different services. For instance, you could get a WorldCom frame relay network and use AT&T for voice, but still get it all from the same reseller (and on one bill).

If you select a new provider based on cost, features, and “gut-feeling,” you then have the challenge of implementing the new network. I know, from experience, this is no small task (especially on a larger network) and, certainly, the pain of this process should be taken into consideration as well when choosing to move to a new vendor.

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