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MPLS vs SD-WAN: which one is the path forward for your WAN?

Written by Contributor, on 27th Nov 2018. Posted in General

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Technology is rapidly evolving. Edge, cloud, and mobile computing are already large and are growing at breakneck pace. Along with this growth comes a surge in bandwidth consumption and a fundamental shift in how data traverses enterprise WANs (Wide Area Networks). Gone are the days where the majority of enterprise data can be expected to only travel between only endpoints controlled by a given enterprise (e.g. physical office locations and corporate datacenters), in today’s modern world, a large chunk of traffic is headed to and from the cloud and mobile devices.

Given this new paradigm, organizations must strategically consider what approach to WAN routing best meets the needs of today while also “future proofing” their networks to be well prepared to tackle the challenges of tomorrow. This leads into the important MPLS vs SD-WAN debate, and getting to the answer that is best for your business can make or help break an enterprise.

While each approach to enterprise WAN offers a unique set of benefits, when viewed from a perspective that considers where the technology is headed, there is a clear winner. That winner is SD-WAN, and in particular premium cloud-based SD-WAN (a.k.a. SD-WAN 3.0 or SDWaaS / SD-WAN as a Service). SD-WAN offers a set of benefits that not only position it advantageously relative to other SD-WAN technologies, but also as a holistic MPLS replacement for enterprises looking to optimize their WAN solutions to meet the demands of modern IT.

This piece will compare MPLS and SDWaaS based on 4 key components enterprises should consider anytime they’re evaluating a WAN solution and explain how SDWaaS is uniquely positioned to be the agile, robust, cost-effective solution required for modern networks.

Comparing cost

In the SD-WAN vs MPLS debate, the fact that SD-WAN is cheaper than MPLS has almost become a given. The reason for this is twofold. First, MPLS bandwidth is generally one of the most expensive types of bandwidth from a “bit per dollar” perspective. Dedicated lines from a service provider don’t come cheap.

Second, “backhauling” can lead to organizations essentially paying for bandwidth twice. Often with MPLS, the data sent out of a given device that is part of an enterprise network must always be routed through a central location. With public cloud-bound traffic, this means data first traverses the MPLS network, and then is sent on its way to the its public cloud destination over the Internet with the enterprise also footing the bill for the Internet bandwidth. Given the increased frequency with which cloud apps and services are being deployed, this can become a real problem.

On the other hand, SD-WAN enables enterprises to use the best transport method (e.g. cable, ASDL, 4G, etc.) for a given workload and dynamically update routes based on what is best under a given set of circumstances. This allows enterprises to get the most ROI out of their bandwidth investments and take advantage of the affordability of the public Internet when it makes sense to do so.

Winner: SD-WaaS

Comparing reliability & performance

Traditionally, the argument in favor of MPLS has been that the tradeoff in cost is worth it because performance is enhanced and reliability is improved when compared to other WAN solutions. While that argument holds some weight when comparing MPLS to legacy SD-WAN, when comparing it to SD-WaaS, it begins to fall apart.

SD-WaaS includes a robust and resilient backbone that is supported by multiple tier-1 ISPs (Internet Service Providers) and backed by an SLA (service level agreement). Additionally, a network of Points of Presence (PoPs) across the globe helps supplement other transport methods and enhance performance when using SD-WaaS. This means that organizations can trust even their latency and packet-loss sensitive applications to an SD-WAN solution and expect performance that is on-par with MPLS.

At best “on-par” gets SD-WaaS to a draw with MPLS in this category. However, that is before you consider the advantages SD-WaaS offers when it comes to cloud and mobile computing. The aforementioned backhauling associated with MPLS creates the “trombone routing” problem that adds latency and thereby worsens performance. When you consider that Gartner projects the trend towards public cloud usage will continue to expand, with public cloud revenues expected to grow by over 17% in 2019, the impact of SD-WaaS advantage here becomes even more important when you have an eye towards future-proofing your WAN.

Additionally, enabling mobile users to access corporate network resources using MPLS can be complex and difficult to maintain. With SD-WaaS, support for mobile is baked-in to the cloud-based design of the solution, making it possible to seamlessly accommodate mobile users and enhance their experience on the corporate WAN.

Further, given the software defined nature of SD-WAN, it is easy for organizations to shape and prioritize traffic (e.g. using QoS and other rule-based routing techniques) to better optimize WAN performance to meet the specific needs of a given use case.

Winner: SD-WaaS

Comparing flexibility

MPLS is a single WAN transport method. SD-WaaS is a holistic solution that enables you to select from multiple transport methods to get the most out of your WAN. Software defined rules enable you to get significantly greater flexibility and granularity in control out of an SD-WaaS solution than you can from an MPLS connection. When the aforementioned advantages in the areas of mobile and cloud computing are considered, SD-WAN beats MPLS handily from the flexibility standpoint.

Winner: SD-WaaS

Comparing security

MPLS is generally viewed as “secure” because the connections are dedicated to a specific organization. However, this also leaves the data that traverses an MPLS otherwise secured and unencrypted, leaving it up to the user to complete the network security puzzle. If most network traffic is between two endpoints controlled by the same enterprise, this might be okay. However, as we have seen, the public cloud is a big part of operating a WAN today, and this means traffic will be flowing to and from endpoints an enterprise does not control. This makes security a must.

With SD-WaaS, advanced security is built-in to the solution. Premium SD-WaaS includes a full network security stack that includes intelligent next-gen firewall, secure web gateway, anti-malware services, and an Intrusion Prevention System (IPS). This helps organizations take an easy to scale, modern, resilient, and robust approach to enterprise IT security in a way that limits the complexity IT staff has to manage without compromising on the quality of the security solution.

Winner: SD-WaaS

The takeaway: SD-WAN is the right path forward for enterprise WANs

MPLS is a mature technology that served WANs with the more static, centralized structure common in the early 2000s well. However, cloud and mobile computing have created new challenges that MPLS wasn’t designed to address. On the other hand, SD-WAN is flexible and extensible enough to meet the demands of modern enterprise networks leveraging cloud workloads and full of mobile users. When that is coupled with the high price tag associated with MPLS bandwidth, the right path forward for enterprise WANs becomes clear: SD-WAN is the way to go.

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