Is Time Running Out for MPLS?

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Comms365 Technical Director, Shaun Nicholls, discusses how, in the long term, it is expected that SD-WAN will replace MPLS and IPsec IPVPN.

In theory, low cost Software as a Service (SaaS) technologies open up innovation to even the smallest business. While Office 365 et al offer an affordable pay-as-you-go application model and essential mobile-enabled business agility, the cost of an underpinning Wide Area Network (WAN) that can deliver the performance users demand has restricted adoption for many multi-site Small Medium Enterprises (SMEs). In addition, the cost and complexity of traditional WAN solutions have deterred the Service Provider network from entering the market, further limiting SME options.

Yet rapid access to cloud-based solutions is becoming a prerequisite for any business wanting to compete. So what is the solution? Software-Defined Networking (SDN) technology provides both SMEs and Internet Service Providers (ISPs) with a lower Total Cost of Ownership (TCO) and an equivalent and enhanced capability when compared to traditional WAN technologies such as MPLS.

In many ways the past decade has seen a fundamental levelling of the technology playing field. The shift towards cloud-based applications has provided even the smallest business with access to high quality, affordable solutions that were previously the preserve of enterprises. Add in the flexibility and agility delivered by increased mobile adoption that provides anytime, anywhere access to key solutions from Customer Relationship Management (CRM) to Skype for Business, Dropbox to Office 365, and businesses of any size can compete. In theory.

The reality is that many smaller multi-site businesses face one significant barrier to exploring and exploiting this new democratic technology era – the untenable cost of the underpinning Wide Area Network (WAN).

Effective exploitation of cloud-based solutions demands both greater bandwidth as well as minimal latency and excellent performance, yet high performing WAN technology is both prohibitively expensive and complex. For SMEs the high cost of Multi-Protocol Label Switching (MPLS) solutions infrastructure and the technical complexities of alternative solutions like Internet Protocol Security (IPsec) tunnels are proving significant barriers to truly exploiting the cloud’s potential.

Indeed, for many SMEs the options are limited by the market itself, with the high cost of providing and supporting these networking technologies proving a barrier to entry for the independent UK Internet (and Managed) Service Provider network that typically delivers solutions to the SME marketplace. The result is that organisations’ cost-effective access to this essential component of the end-to-end technology stack is fundamentally compromised.

Building Scale

Change is afoot, however. With even large corporates increasingly baulking at the cost, delay and complexity associated with upgrading vendor specific MPLS networks, attention is turning to a far more flexible and scalable alternative. Building on the proven Software Defined Networking (SDN) model, Software Defined Wide Area Networking (SD-WAN) can be layered seamlessly onto an existing WAN infrastructure to quickly and cost effectively deliver the bandwidth required.

This software based solution platform enables a transition from proprietary hardware devices to software defined networks that are programmable, agile and decoupled to keep pace with the demands of enterprise IT. While offering the same service class and quality already provided by technologies such as MPLS, SD-WAN opens the door to a lower cost, multi-vendor model that is both quicker and cheaper to deploy and gives end-users, network engineers and service providers the ability to adjust, optimise, automate and test WAN connections.

With global revenues expected to exceed $6bn in 2020, according to IDC, and Gartner predicting that 30% of enterprises will use SD-WAN products in all their branches by 2019, this is clearly a technology with serious potential – and one that ISPs, MSPs and SMEs need to consider.

One of the most compelling aspects of this software defined model is that it puts network control in the hands of the business for the first time. Rather than relying on the expensive network service provider to manage network traffic, an organisation’s IT team can use SD-WAN’s centralised management tools to add lines, manage traffic and move applications in and out of the cloud as required. IT Managers can rapidly gain control over both critical and non-critical application traffic streams and prioritise performance in line with business change.

The more advanced SD-WAN solution also enables organisations to aggregate any redundant back-up connections and dynamically optimise application performance. There is no need for an expensive engineering resource – the entire process can be managed by an existing in-house software guru. Indeed, the shift away from hardware to a software defined model also significantly reduces on-going costs by upwards of 40-50% – including third party engineering resources, expensive MPLS access circuits and dedicated proprietary hardware.

It may be too early to say MPLS is dead; but by reducing complexity, facilitating fast deployment and enabling centralised control, SD-WAN is an increasingly compelling overlay and eventual replacement alternative solution that is set to unleash the potential of the cloud for businesses of every size.