Decoder: SD-WAN vs MPLS

Enterprises are moving from MPLS to support the transition to a multi-cloud environment for a predictable user experience and to reduce bandwidth costs. They are upgrading to SD-WAN to protect their network and prepare for a future move to SASE architecture.

In this Decoder article, we look at the difference between the two networking technologies.

What is MPLS?

Multiprotocol Label Switching (MPLS) is a transport protocol used in traditional networking to move data packets to a destination as quickly and efficiently as possible. It's been in use for over two decades.

Organizations must install physical MPLS circuits at sites where they want to facilitate the exchange of data.

For example, an enterprise could have MPLS circuits installed at a remote branch office and at a corporate data center that users in that branch location need to access.

MPLS is known for its reliability and performance where data travels along predetermined paths. But as organizations move to the cloud, they require a more flexible, agile, and cost-effective approach to network connectivity to ensure an optimal user experience.

What is SD-WAN?

Software-defined wide-area networking (SD-WAN) is a software-based approach to managing the WAN. As with MPLS, enterprises use it for network connectivity between locations such as remote branches, data centers, cloud instances, and the devices of employees working from home.

SD-WAN is an evolution in connectivity from traditional MPLS technology. It enables customers to prioritize critical business traffic and take advantage of a variety of transport methods, such as MPLS circuits, direct internet broadband, and LTE/5G. It simplifies the management of the WAN and makes it independent of transport layers.

One reason more organizations are upgrading to SD-WAN is the rapid rise of remote work and cloud adoption. SD-WAN provides edge users with more secure, reliable network connections when they access enterprise applications and data anytime, anywhere, while delivering a predictable user experience.

SD-WAN enables enterprises to prioritize data based on its type and then choose the shortest, fastest, and most reliable and cost-effective path available.

What is SASE architecture?

Secure access service edge (SASE) provides unified networking and security capabilities in a cloud-delivered service to deliver access and security from edge to edge, including users, data, applications, branch office, and beyond.

SASE is a network architecture that combines VPN and SD-WAN capabilities with cloud-native functions. Those functions, secure web gateway, cloud access security broker (CASB), firewall, and zero-trust network access, are provided by the SASE vendor as a single, integrated offer that is delivered from the cloud.

SASE is a vision for what secure networking should look like in the future. Today, SASE can be delivered through the convergence of cloud-managed SD-WAN and cloud-delivered security.

SD-WAN is a foundational element of a SASE architecture, as it will allow organizations to gradually transition to a SASE architecture on their own timetable. SD-WAN adoption also helps enterprises realize their cloud transformation strategies.

Benefits of SD-WAN versus MPLS

SD-WAN: An investment for the future

As previously explained, implementing an SD-WAN architecture helps enterprises protect their investment in network and prepare if they choose to move to a SASE architecture, the future for cloud-based, secure networking.

MPLS technology isn't capable of supporting that future because it requires inflexible physical links to provide network connectivity.

As more businesses move to the cloud, and as more users work remotely and access data and applications from the cloud, MPLS connection costs will continue to increase as more expensive connections are required.

Better performance, reliable user experience

SD-WAN enables organizations to provide more reliable and higher-quality connections to remote locations and edge users, including for bandwidth-intensive, real-time applications.

For example, SD-WAN can automatically choose the best path, or multiple paths, for routing the data packets for a video call. This capability can reduce call latency and jitter for all of the call's participants, wherever they may be located. SD-WAN also makes it easy to add bandwidth as needed, based on demand.

Increased flexibility and lower costs

Securing multiple gigabit links from carriers to move data packets for bandwidth-intensive, real-time applications can be very expensive. But SD-WAN provides organizations with the flexibility to route data along the best available path, and enables businesses to reduce the costs.

SD-WAN can go directly to the cloud, so an enterprise isn't required to route data through its data center or over the carrier network. The optimal path for data packets could be wireless, 5G, a direct connection, or even an MPLS circuit, depending on the circumstances. SD-WAN can automatically choose the best path.

It's also worth noting that SD-WAN can help enterprises reduce operational costs. SD-WAN enables them to prepare for the next evolution of digitization: the convergence of networking and security and the move to a SASE model.

Right security, right place

MPLS technology is designed for networking, not for security, which means routing all traffic back to a central location to the security stack. This action results in higher bandwidth costs and poor user experience.

SD-WAN combines the best of both networking and security. SD-WAN lets customers choose between on-premises or cloud native security capabilities that protect against the latest cyber threats.

Organizations that use SD-WAN can implement security controls, including at the edge, to help ensure data and application traffic is secure, no matter where it is traveling from or to in the network.

Businesses can provide remote branch locations and edge users with direct internet access to cloud applications while delivering protection against threats originating from the internet. They can meet regulatory and privacy requirements around data by applying unified security and segmentation policies.

Additionally, they can reduce the attack surface because there is no need to deploy edge hardware at each site to enable connectivity.

Operations simplified

In addition to being software-based, which is easier for IT to implement and manage, SD-WAN's automation reduces the need for manual troubleshooting of issues.

For instance, with MPLS, if there's an equipment failure somewhere in the network, IT must scramble to troubleshoot the issue and reroute traffic. SD-WAN does the heavy lifting on this work automatically.

SD-WAN also reduces the need for enterprises to have IT staff working onsite at remote locations. SD-WAN solutions can provide visibility and control to IT teams through cloud-based, centralized administration, providing easier management of distributed resources.

Does SD-WAN replace MPLS?

For many businesses, MPLS remains a relevant and efficient solution for network connectivity.

Organizations in certain industries, such as defence or healthcare, may need to maintain MPLS infrastructure for compliance and security reasons and not move their vital data and apps to the cloud. They may want to use MPLS to ensure a high level of reliability in network connectivity to support certain business-critical applications.

While the move to SD-WAN is accelerating rapidly, most companies are in a hybrid state right now. In other words, they are using both MPLS and SD-WAN solutions where they make the most sense for the business and its users.

Some organizations also hesitate to move too quickly to new technology. Transitioning away from legacy, technologies like MPLS takes time and effort. So, some businesses that take a hybrid approach do so because it lets them expand their use of SD-WAN at a comfortable pace while increasing agility, flexibility, and security in their network.

Article first appeared on Cisco

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