With SD-WAN stealing all the networking headlines, businesses that have been reliably using MPLS for decades are being now reassessing their infrastructure. In the face of mounting pressure to modernise, digitise and cloudify networks, are asking, ‘Is MPLS dead?’
We take a look at the two technologies to find out whether SD-WAN is the only option for networking in the future, or whether ‘new tech’ syndrome is hiding the fact that, actually, MPLS still has a lot to offer…
The heyday of MPLS
For almost three decades, MPLS (Multiprotocol Label Switching) has been the go-to connectivity option for countless businesses, valued for its reliability, security and quality of service (QoS) features. It’s a networking technology that uses ‘labels’ to efficiently route data packets between networks, and has been popular among businesses and organisations with complex networking needs operating across multiple sites.
MPLS prioritises and routes traffic according to the application or service being used, guaranteeing bandwidth for mission-critical applications while maintaining deprioritised connections for less important traffic.
Businesses using MPLS have benefitted from improved application performance, reduced risk of downtime and latency issues, and increased network security through label-switched paths. As well as automatic rerouting in the event of network outages has armed businesses with true network and operational resilience.
The rise (and rise) of SD-WAN
As the digital age has advanced and cloud technologies have become commonplace, businesses have been turning more towards software-defined wide area networks (SD-WAN) as the seemingly natural next step for networking. As a dynamic network architecture, SD-WAN allows businesses to use multiple networking connections to optimise performance, reducing costs by intelligently routing traffic over the internet.
It’s proven itself as an easy-to-manage networking solution for the hybrid-working age, connecting remote users as easily as it connects offices, and smoothing the connection to a growing number of cloud-based tools and services.
Why are businesses moving away from MPLS?
Cloud computing has undoubtedly changed the technology landscape, such that business and user expectations are hugely different from when MPLS hit the scene 30+ years ago. Businesses now expect scalability as standard. They expect seamless integration and ease of use. They demand automation and the AI-enhanced operation of tech. And they want it all at a price that won’t break the bank.
In this environment, many have started to question the continued relevance of MPLS on several fronts.
- Cost: The common perception is that MPLS can be more expensive than other networking technologies like broadband or SD-WAN, particularly for organisations that need to connect multiple locations. It’s worth noting, however, that much of this messaging comes from the global market, where MPLS is much more expensive than it is in the UK. Here, many providers have been offering MPLS services at the same price for many years, so moving away from MPLS doesn’t always offer the savings businesses think it might.
- Limited flexibility: MPLS is designed to provide a specific set of features and services, and therefore isn’t as flexible as newer networking technologies like SD-WAN. The limited flexibility of MPLS can make it more difficult for businesses to adapt to changing business needs, or to take advantage of new technologies and solutions as they become available.
- Complexity: MPLS can be more complex to implement and more difficult to manage than other networking technologies, which is why many businesses opt to outsource this to a dedicated service provider so they resume overall management of the network.
- Limited visibility: MPLS provides limited visibility into network traffic and performance, which can make it more difficult for businesses to monitor performance and identify and troubleshoot issues. To combat this, many service providers include network visibility and management services as part of their MPLS offering, while other businesses may need to deploy additional network visibility and monitoring tools to help them identify traffic bottlenecks, spot usage patterns and resolve potential security threats.
MPLS is typically provided by a single vendor or service provider (who themselves may utilise a range of different providers services to deliver in one package to the customer). This can create a dependency for network connectivity and limit a business’s ability to negotiate over pricing.
Is SD-WAN a better networking choice than MPLS?
SD-WAN undoubtedly presents businesses with a fantastic networking option. It’s a flexible, scalable, as-a-Service infrastructure that helps businesses connect directly to the cloud and enables network access wherever there is an internet connection. But there are still many advantages to MPLS, which can’t be overlooked…
- Security: Because SD-WAN is an internet-based networking solution, it’s vulnerable to any cyberthreat present within the online environment. SD-WAN routes traffic along the most efficient path, and once those IP packets hit the open internet, there are no security guarantees. This means businesses need to pay special and specific attention to network security, and implement additional cybersecurity tools and protocols. MPLS, on the other hand, is natively highly secure, using label-switched paths (LSPs) to create private and secure connections between locations. This can be particularly important for businesses and organisations that handle sensitive data.
- Quality of service: MPLS uses traffic engineering to prioritise certain types of traffic, which means businesses that rely on real-time applications like video conferencing and voice over IP are guaranteed to always get the best quality connections. SD-WAN relies on the quality of the internet connection, and can be more prone to latency issues, lagging and other connectivity glitches.
- Reliability: MPLS provides a high level of uptime, as well as automatic failover connectivity in the event of a network outage. This is important for businesses that rely on uninterrupted connectivity to critical applications and services, including bandwidth-intensive data transfers and real-time communications. Again, SD-WAN relies on the quality of the internet connection, and flaky connectivity can cause transfer disruption as well as application access issues so it’s really important to have the best connectivity available.
- Scalability: While, as a cloud technology, SD-WAN does offer scalability, it’s worth bearing in mind that MPLS was designed specifically to support large and complex networks – it can easily scale to accommodate changing business needs. Its strengths in this area alone make MPLS a good choice for businesses that have a large number of locations or are experiencing rapid growth.
- Support: Another area where MPLS can trump SD-WAN is in the level of support available. Many service providers offer managed MPLS services, giving businesses access to a high level of technical support, as well as expertise when it comes to managing their network infrastructure. For businesses that don’t have the internal resources or expertise, this can be a deciding factor.
So MPLS isn’t dead?
No, MPLS is most definitely not dead. In fact, while newer technologies like SD-WAN are understandably gaining momentum, MPLS remains a relevant and important networking option that will play a crucial role for many businesses in the years ahead.
How businesses will decide on their preferred solution will be based on their business requirements, but both options are still valid. For example a cloud-first business may find the features and benefits that SD-WAN offers to be more suitable to their needs, whereas businesses which are focussed more on the guarantee of security then a managed MPLS offering may be better suited.
What we will start to see over the next few years, however, is MPLS being used alongside newer technologies to give businesses the best of both worlds.
What does the future look like for MPLS?
The future of MPLS is likely to be as part of a hybrid WAN deployment, where it’s used in conjunction with SD-WAN to give businesses the best of cloud-based computing as well as secure, reliable connectivity.
Businesses leveraging this type of hybrid network will benefit from the low-latency, failsafe and secure connections to mission-critical applications and high-bandwidth services offered by MPLS, while simultaneously leveraging the increased flexibility of SD-WAN to create a more dynamic network architecture.
Powering your business network, 24/7
The key focus for businesses should be selecting the technology that is the best fit for their needs. It’s crucial to consider what is required from your network, the data and application profile needs (where you are consuming data and applications from and where these are being sent to), and the best way for this to be managed based upon your inhouse resource and expertise – do you want to manage the network yourself or have a more hands-off approach.
For more information on how M247 can support your business network needs and help you determine what is the best option for your business visit