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19 Nov 2023

MPLS Alternatives: Can SD-WAN Replace MPLS?

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Sharon Duchin
Table of Contents

SD-WAN offers a range of compelling benefits compared to MPLS. Firstly, it can excel in scalability by allowing organizations to easily expand their network infrastructure. It can also be cloud-ready, seamlessly integrating with cloud services, and ensuring optimal performance and reliability for cloud applications. And SD-WAN can boost agility by enabling rapid adaptation to changing business needs, all while maintaining security and cost-effectiveness.

In summary, SD-WAN can empower businesses with scalable, cloud-ready, flexible networking solutions that align perfectly with the demands of the modern digital landscape.

But asking if SD-WAN can replace MPLS is probably not the most insightful question to ask if you’re trying to decide on a network connectivity solution. The effectiveness of SD-WAN depends on how it is defined, configured, and managed. With so many SD-WAN vendors offering diverse solutions across multiple deployment models — and no definitive standards — a better question to ask is what are your specific connectivity needs?


triparrows

Teridion ‘s AI-powered network as a service combines the best of both MPLS and SD-WAN for optimized network performance, but without many of the trade-offs that come with each. Learn more.


Advantages and Disadvantages of SD-WAN vs MPLS

Security: One-size-fits-all solutions don’t exist

Being a newer technology, SD-WAN offers more flexibility and integration for enhanced security features such as encryption and firewall capabilities. But the security level largely depends on the choices you make when configuring and implementing it. On its own, a pure-play SD-WAN device lacks the security needed to protect a branch office, and requires the acquisition, deployment, and management of additional security solutions.  SD-WAN also exposes the network to the public internet, potentially increasing security risks.

An increasingly common solution is to use SASE (Secure Access Service Edge) to enhance SD-WAN security. With SASE plus SD-WAN, organizations can integrate a wide range of security services, adopt a Zero Trust model, leverage cloud-native architecture, and get comprehensive visibility and control. SASE also ensures the scalability and flexibility required to adapt to evolving security needs.

Organizations or highly-regulated industries with strict security requirements may prefer the additional layer of security provided by MPLS, which is partitioned off the public internet, making it an inherently secure transport service. Yet, this too, is not without limitations. The most notable security-related drawback of MPLS is that it often lacks the granular visibility and security features required for cloud applications, which may demand enhanced security measures.

In short, whether choosing MPLS or SD-WAN, there is no out-of-the-box security solution to match every organization. As security needs evolve and grow increasingly complex, they must be matched to specific configurations and add-on measures. These all come at an added cost, which leads us to our next parameter…

Cost: Look for hidden charges

MPLS networks tend to be expensive. They require dedicated hardware, leased lines, and typically involve long-term contracts with service providers. MPLS providers charge based on bandwidth usage and geographical reach, and along with  redundancy needs, SLAs, security measures, and specialized support, these costs can add up, making MPLS a significant investment for organizations seeking reliable and high-performance networking solutions.

SD-WAN is often considered cost-effective compared to MPLS, since it uses existing infrastructure and allows for the use of multiple internet links, including broadband and low-cost connections which can reduce operational costs. Additionally, SD-WAN enables dynamic path selection, optimizing bandwidth usage and potentially lowering overall expenses.

However, though cheaper than MPLS, implementing SD-WAN can still be a significant investment with high initial costs, and the ROI may not be immediately evident in all cases. If the cost of deploying SD-WAN outweighs the potential performance gains or if other cost-effective solutions are available, SD-WAN might not be the best choice. Additionally, when dealing with mission-critical applications, it may be necessary to invest in higher-grade internet connections or redundant links to maintain reliability, which can narrow the cost gap with MPLS.

Finally, there can be hidden costs with some SD-WAN solutions, including third-party monitoring tools, purchasing extra bandwidth for resiliency, and the costs of using multiple providers.

Network Performance: No magic bullets

Just as in comparing cost and security, the choice between MPLS and SD-WAN in terms of network performance will also depend on an organization’s specific needs. MPLS is renowned for its consistent performance, QoS, and reliability, particularly for applications that are highly sensitive to latency and packet loss, such as voice and video conferencing. It’s typically best suited for traditional enterprise setups that need to connect multiple fixed locations or data centers.

But MPLS has limitations when it comes to optimizing network performance for cloud applications. For example, the static nature of MPLS networks means they are often designed with a fixed topology, which can make them less adaptable to dynamic cloud applications. Cloud services often require rapid scalability and real-time adjustments to handle changing workloads. Also, MPLS networks often backhaul cloud-bound traffic through a central data center, which can introduce latency and increase the load on the network.

Comparatively, SD-WAN offers greater flexibility than MPLS for optimizing network performance because it can dynamically route traffic based on real-time conditions. This is especially valuable for businesses with changing workloads and multiple remote locations. SD-WAN is also highly scalable and can accommodate new locations and changing bandwidth requirements more easily than MPLS.

For all of its advantages, it is important to note that SD-WAN is not a magic bullet for network performance. The effectiveness of SD-WAN depends on how it is configured and managed, so having a robust network foundation before deployment is crucial. If your existing network infrastructure is outdated, unreliable, or poorly configured, implementing SD-WAN may not deliver the desired improvements you’re looking for. Also, while SD-WAN can optimize the use of available bandwidth, it cannot create more bandwidth if your network is consistently maxed out, since it can only prioritize and manage existing resources.

Finally,  SD-WAN cannot address underlying QoS problems. If your network experiences issues related to packet loss, jitter, or latency, SD-WAN may not completely eliminate these problems. Addressing QoS issues might require additional network optimization such as traffic prioritization and application-aware routing to ensure optimal performance for critical applications.

Management: Much will depend on the vendor you choose

MPLS networks are traditionally managed by service providers. Changes and adjustments require coordination with the provider, which can lead to long lead times for network modifications. SD-WAN, by comparison, offers centralized management and greater control over the network. It can enable quick and agile adjustments to routing and security policies through a single controller or orchestrator to significantly reduce management complexity.

Yet the flexibility of SD-WAN also presents weaknesses, the most glaring of which is a lack of standardization. Additionally, for SD-WAN deployments that are managed internally, on-premises, IT teams must maintain appliance infrastructure, refresh hardware, and run software upgrades.

Despite standing out for its technological flexibility, choosing a particular SD-WAN vendor can lead to contractual lock-in, making it challenging to switch to another solution. Evaluate SD-WAN vendors carefully, considering vendor-agnostic options, or ensure that the chosen vendor supports open standards.

Choosing Between SD-WAN and MPLS

In summary, SD-WAN and MPLS have significant pros and cons depending on your organization’s needs. It’s important to conduct a thorough assessment of your network requirements and potential issues before transitioning from MPLS to SD-WAN or implementing an SD-WAN solution from scratch, to ensure that it aligns with your goals and delivers the expected benefits.

Here’s what to look for:

  • Network Requirements: Evaluate your organization’s specific network requirements, including performance, security, and budget.
  • Network Complexity: Evaluate the level of complexity involved in deploying and managing each solution. SD-WAN tends to offer simpler management and configuration compared to the traditionally complex nature of MPLS networks — but look at the details.
  • Cloud Readiness: Assess your organization’s cloud strategy. If you heavily rely on cloud services, SD-WAN may provide better integration and optimization for cloud connectivity.
  • Organizational Goals: The advantages and disadvantages of both SD-WAN and MPLS should be considered in the context of your organizational goals. Factors like scalability, cloud connectivity, application performance, and future network expansion plans should be weighed when determining which solution best suits your organization’s long-term objectives.

Teridion: The Next-Generation Replacement for Traditional SD-WAN and MPLS Solutions

Teridion ‘s AI-powered network as a service combines the best of both MPLS and SD-WAN for optimized network performance,  but without many of the trade-offs that come with each.

Teridion leverages a global cloud-based network with over 500 PoPs to provide secure, scalable, and flexible connectivity across multiple regions and countries. This makes Teridion an ideal choice for global companies with remote or hybrid work teams.  Our cloud-native approach eliminates the need for costly MPLS circuits while guaranteeing optimized network performance without hidden upgrade charges — including for mission-critical applications.

And with the help of Teridion’s 24/7 expert support team and user-friendly management platform, you can easily monitor, analyze, and trouble-shoot connectivity needs across your entire organization.

In summary, SD-WAN is a powerful technology that can significantly enhance network flexibility and cost-effectiveness, but it may not always be the best alternative to MPLS, especially when dealing with highly sensitive or mission-critical applications. Organizations should carefully assess their specific needs, the quality of their internet connections, and their tolerance for network complexity before deciding on a network connectivity solution, whether it’s SD-WAN, MPLS, a mix of the two, or other fast-emerging solutions like Teridion.

Picture of Sharon Duchin
Sharon Duchin

Head of Marketing

Sharon Duchin is the Head of Marketing at Terdion. Prior to joining Teridion she was the CMO of several startups, as well as a Business Unit Manager at Keter Plastic and a Marketing Manager at General Mills USA. Sharon Holds an MBA from Chicago Booth and a B.Sc. in Computer Science and Economics from the Hebrew University.
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