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SD-WAN vs MPLS: Discover the Differences

Businesses have needed private networks practically since the beginning of the internet. Originally, there were simple Wide Area Networks (WANs), though these had severe limitations and lacked security. However, WAN optimization got better over time with new protocols, perhaps the most notable being multi-protocol layer switching (MPLS), followed later by software-defined wide area network (SD-WAN). The evolution from traditional WAN architecture to more advanced solutions highlights the industry’s shift toward optimizing application performance and enhancing user experience.

MPLS infrastructure came before SD-WAN, and the former is currently the most popular way for businesses to manage their private networks. However, SD-WAN is gaining traction as a superior method, offering an MPLS alternative that caters to the modern needs of businesses, especially for those relying heavily on cloud-based applications like Microsoft Teams for unified communication. So which is right for your business?

Here, we’ll discuss the differences between SD-WAN and MPLS, the pros and cons of each, and whether one (or both) is the best fit for your business.

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The difference between a software-defined wide area network (SD-WAN) and MPLS

SD-WAN and MPLS technology are ways to manage private networks commonly used by businesses, but they have distinct differences. When comparing SD-WAN vs MPLS, it’s crucial to consider factors such as WAN connectivity, the ability to support critical applications, and the overall impact on WAN traffic.

How do the technical details stack up?

  • MPLS, developed shortly after the millennium, relies on dedicated physical connections installed in your facilities. Its hardware nature is what gives it its high level of reliability and predictability, as well as what accounts for its higher upfront price tag. It uses packet-switching technology and operates between layers 2 and 3, Data Link and Network, in the Open Systems Interconnection (OSI) model, meaning it’s sometimes classified as layer 2.5. MPLS’s remove from the public internet means it has security benefits for its users
  • SD-WAN, which came into use in the early 2010s, is a broadband solution designed to provide a virtualized, software-defined approach to business networking. Since it does not rely on a hardware connection, it’s quicker to set up. SD-WAN uses dynamic path selection among a variety of redundant connections, is controlled from a central interface and its security is ensured by cloud-based services.

How does using SD-WAN differ from MPLS?

  • Need for dedicated UNIs: A dedicated last-mile User Network Interface (UNI) needs to be installed at each branch from the provider of the MPLS circuit. If this circuit goes down, you lose access to the network. SD-WAN does not require dedicated last-mile UNIs. SD-WAN has inherent redundancy, so when one connection fails or becomes degraded there are several backup options. (Wi-Fi, 4G LTE, 5G, etc.).
  • Suitability for the cloud: MPLS connection transport protocols have the best performance and reliability when data traffic moves along predetermined paths. SD-WAN has superior flexibility, making it more suitable for cloud storage and enhancing application performance.
  • Easier network management: MPLS networks are managed with software and can be configured dynamically. SD-WAN uses a unified software architecture, enabling you to manage every device’s policies and security settings in one customer portal.
  • Efficiency: Unlike MPLS, SD-WAN can identify types of data and then use intelligent pathing to ensure it gets to its destination efficiently. This also helps prevent packet loss.

The pros and cons of MPLS and SD-WAN

MPLS and SD-WAN each have pros and cons. Here are a few:

MPLS Pros:

  1. Highly reliable. With consistent data speeds as network traffic is anticipated.
  2. Predictable. Predetermined network paths mean data packets travel linearly, which can be ideal for some business networks.

MPLS Cons:

  1. Expensive. MPLS is provided by telecommunications companies who sell it at a premium – along with the data they provide to their customers.
  2. Difficult to scale. Each new branch requires new MPLS circuits and ever-increasing data costs.
  3. Challenging to manage. Each branch has to be individually configured, which takes a great deal of time. This can lead to errors implementing universal rules and network security protocols.
  4. Vulnerable to outages. If a circuit fails or a connection goes down, the entire network is affected. Even a momentary disruption can lead to packet loss.
  5. Complex. Complexity increases with added branches, making it harder to manage and add new components to the network infrastructure.
  6. Difficult to secure. MPLS functions poorly with cloud applications, meaning you can’t use cloud security. Separate circuits also mean you can’t universally apply network rule sets, as there is no single software interface.
  7. Requires an MPLS link to a service provider.

SD-WAN Pros:

  1. Easy to scale. No special accessories are needed to use SD-WAN other than basic networking equipment. Data costs do not go up with added branches.
  2. Enhanced network performance. Especially for cloud storage.
  3. Less expensive than an MPLS.
  4. Simple to implement. SD-WAN is easily deployed and maintained.
  5. Less complex than MPLS.
  6. Security benefits. SD-WAN setups can use cloud security and universal rule sets, all configured via a single software interface.
  7. Compatible with existing MPLS protocols. SD-WAN doesn’t necessarily need MPLS, but companies can integrate the two or choose to forgo MPLS completely.

SD-WAN Cons:

  1. More access points. Because there is no central data center and everything works in the cloud, a data breach can affect the entire network.
  2. Limited quality of service (QoS) features if deployed without MPLS.

Software-defined wide area network or MPLS: Which is right for you?

Businesses may be best off with SD-WAN or they may be happy with MPLS. It all depends on what you want out of your private network. Here are a few key questions to consider when choosing one or the other:

Does my business use cloud storage or will it in the future?

If you expect to use cloud storage, SD-WAN is clearly the superior choice. MPLS was designed at a time when cloud storage had yet to come into existence. With a very linear type of protocol that relies on data being predictable and consistent to prevent data packet loss, MPLS is ill-suited for cloud storage. SD-WAN has advantages such as network connectivity redundancy, a software-defined interface and a cloud-focused architecture, which makes it far friendlier for cloud storage.

Do I want to scale my business?

MPLS has always suffered from high costs involved with scaling. As your business grows, so do your data needs — and since telecommunications companies are the ones that offer MPLS as a solution, you’ll have to pay a premium for higher data caps and faster speeds.

There’s also the matter of equipment. Each branch of your network requires an MPLS circuit before it can access the network. SD-WAN can be implemented without any special accessories. On top of that, SD-WAN can be added to an existing MPLS network, should you decide to use both at once.

Do I want to manage my network in one place, or as separate branches?

MPLS does not have a central interface for network configuration. Instead, every part of the network across branches needs to be configured to meet your specific security requirements and plan rules. This also increases the risk of human error: If you have a large network and a part of it isn’t configured properly, then it isn’t following plan rules and isn’t secure.

SD-WAN uses software to manage the network — all of it at once. With SD-WAN, you have a single interface that controls all branches of the network at one time. With this type of configuration, you can configure the network, enforce universal security and manage each branch with a single service.

How much do I rely on streaming data communications?

Due to the dependability of MPLS, it can provide valuable stability for high-bandwidth applications like video conferencing. Network World notes that MPLS remains a steady backbone for many large companies due to its ability to provide guaranteed real-time traffic performance. While SD-WAN is scalable to handle large bandwidth requirements, MPLS provides a solid foundation for these communications by default.

Do I want cloud or on-premises security?

This is a matter of preference, as there are pros and cons to each type of security. With MPLS, you can use on-premises security. This makes it more difficult to configure but also isolates the branch from others in case of a data breach. On the other hand, SD-WAN can utilize cloud security, making it simple to set up and manage as an all-encompassing solution — but because all network components are interconnected if one branch is breached, they all will be.

What are my company's use cases for point-to-point communications?

MPLS remains popular when there’s a need for point-to-point links between major company offices. Network World adds that in addition to its role as a solid connection for telecommunications, MPLS is a good bet to link large retail stores, manufacturing facilities and data centers, providing a priority path for data. It can serve in this role whether or not the company uses SD-WAN for other purposes.

How concerned am I about service outages?

MPLS circuits are all dependent on each other to function and only use one type of connection at a time. If one MPLS circuit fails, then the private network is unusable until that circuit is back online. MPLS connectivity options are also limited and don’t have built-in redundancy, meaning if you lose your Wi-Fi connection and don’t have a redundant external setup, your business’ productivity will come to a halt.

SD-WAN has built-in redundancy across multiple types of networks. Your network will commonly use 4G LTE, 5G, and Wi-Fi broadband all at one time. Aside from the performance benefits, if you lose one type of connection, you’ll have backups. Your business will stay functional and connected to the internet, as well as to your own private network.

What if I’m happy with MPLS but want the benefits of SD-WAN?

An integral feature of SD-WAN is how much simpler it is to implement and use than a traditional MPLS network, but an MPLS system certainly has its own advantages if you’ve worked out a successful system. While you can use SD-WAN on its own, you don’t have to — it can be used on top of an existing MPLS network, ensuring an already-made MPLS line investment doesn’t go to waste.

SD-WAN is superior in many regards to MPLS, but it does contain drawbacks that aren’t issues with a traditional MPLS service. If you want the best of both worlds, mixing MPLS’s reliability and direct connectivity with the flexibility and redundancy of SD-WAN. you can use SD-WAN and an MPLS provider at the same time. However, keep in mind this means you’ll also be paying for each.

Can I afford MPLS?

Broadly speaking, MPLS is less affordable than SD-WAN, even if you’re not planning to scale your business any time soon. Because communications companies provide and manage MPLS for your business and SD-WAN has yet to become completely mainstream, they can charge a premium for MPLS because it’s what most businesses use. When you use both SD-WAN and MPLS at the same time, the costs stack. Interested in learning more about SD-WAN? Contact Us.

SD-WAN is the successor to MPLS

SD-WAN may be newer and not yet as popular as MPLS, but it has many features that MPLS lacks. At the same time, MPLS — while an older system that comes at a high cost — is the more common of the two offerings. Depending on what your business’s needs are, one or the other may be better for you; or, if you prefer, you can use both.

Here at WiLine, we offer a complete SD-WAN solution that can easily be implemented by itself or with MPLS. Our managed SD-WAN services, backed by our partnerships with technology partners such as Cisco SD-WAN, ensure that your SD-WAN deployment is smooth and that your WAN architecture is optimized for the best possible user experience.

Contact us today to learn more about our professional services and how we can help you transition to an SD-WAN network, enhance your WAN connectivity and leverage the benefits of SD-WAN technology for your business.

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