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SD-WAN vs MPLS: Which Delivers the Most Business Value?

August 22, 2023 No Comments

Featured article by Debbie Fletcher, Independent Technology Author

Well, it depends. While almost any situation will have corner cases or specific applications where a given technology is the right fit, and this idea is usually at the heart of those “it depends” moments, we believe there are some real answers to the questions surrounding the SD-WAN vs MPLS debate.

In short, SD-WAN and in particular premium cloud-based SD-WAN (a.k.a. SD-WAN 3.0 or SDWaaS / SD-WAN as a Service) offers a set of compelling benefits to most enterprises when compared to SD-WAN. While this piece will stop short of saying MPLS is going the way of the horse and buggy, it will explore the real business benefits that enterprises that adopt SD-WAN can expect to enjoy.

Are the benefits of SD-WAN just hype?

Before diving into the specific benefits of SD-WAN, it is important to answer this question. When comparing a relatively new technology to a trusted and mature one like MPLS, it is very reasonable to ask if the new kid on the block is simply another tech hype job. If you were only reading about the potential benefits of that new technology and all the hype was only coming from vendors of products with said technology, chalking it up to hype might make sense. However, with SD-WAN, that simply isn’t the case. Trusted research firms are touting the benefits of SD-WAN, for example:

This article from Gartner calls out SD-WAN’s very real and tangible benefits – including cost, performance, availability to name a few

Rohit Mehra, VP Network Infrastructure from IDC believes that the rise of cloud and the imperative of digital transformation have set the stage for SD-WAN to play a key role in assuring the availability and performance of important applications and services at branch offices as well as off site.

A Frost & Sullivan analysis posted by VMware (PDF) indicates that SD-WAN has emerged from the early adopter stage and entered the growth stage.

Couple these with the thousands of real-world enterprise use cases where SD-WAN has made an impact, and it is clear SD-WAN is more than just hype.

The business benefits of SD-WAN

With the hype question out of the way, it’s time to dive into the specific business benefits SD-WAN offers. Given that SDWaaS is the most uniquely positioned form of SD-WAN to offer optimized performance and cost savings compared to MPLS, the benefits below will focus specially on SDWaaS, but many points can be generally applied to older iterations of SD-WAN as well.

Enhanced flexibility

At a high level, flexibility is the fundamental advantage of SD-WAN over MPLS. While MPLS was a single, reliable transport method, SD-WAN enables enterprises to decouple their applications from any given transport method (e.g. Internet, ASDL, 4G LTE, & even MPLS connections themselves), and instead leverage the method that works best in a given scenario. Not being tied down to a given transport method enables enterprises to become more agile and efficient in their approach to their WAN.

More “data per dollar”

Any enterprise that has used MPLS knows that the cost of MPLS bandwidth is significantly higher than the cost of bandwidth sent over the public Internet. In the past, organizations were willing to settle for these higher costs because the public Internet simply couldn’t provide the reliability of a dedicated MPLS connection. However, with premium cloud-based SD-WAN, enterprises can benefit from SLA-backed connections and a backbone supported by tier-1 Internet Service Providers (ISPs), while still being able to leverage the economic benefits of routing traffic over the public Internet. This can significantly reduce, or even completely eliminate an organization’s dependence on MPLS for reliable WAN bandwidth at a significant reduction in cost.

Easier & more affordable access

Most modern organizations grow in a fashion that is not conducive to maintaining a homogeneous network environment across all locations. When mergers and acquisitions occur and new sites are provisioned in new regions, IT teams are often left to “duct-tape” a corporate network together using some combination of MPLS and Internet-based VPNs.

SD-WaaS makes accessibility much simpler while offering performance that exceeds that of Internet-based VPNs and is on par with MPLS at a much lower price point. In short, the resilient and robust backbone offered by SD-WAN plus the inherent ease of access to a cloud-based service make it easier for users to access corporate network resources and easier for IT teams to provision new sites, without sacrificing performance or reliability. Where MPLS and VPN used to help enterprises connect networks, SD-WAN can help them truly mesh their network. Additionally, with SD-WaaS, security is built directly in to the solution with features like next-gen firewalls, Intrusion Protection Systems, and secure web gateways available “out of the box”. This further reduces capex on expensive security appliances and opex on the provisioning and maintenance of those appliances.

Optimized for mobile & cloud

Cloud services and mobile computing add a layer of agility to any enterprise. Being able to access data and resources anywhere they are needed can truly be a competitive edge. However, MPLS inherently hamstrings these benefits by backhauling data through a corporate datacenter prior to sending it on to its final destination, which is often somewhere on the public Internet. This “trombone routing” is inefficient and can impact performance. With SD-WaaS, seamless integration of cloud applications and mobile devices is possible.

SD-WAN offers real business value to enterprises

While MPLS will still have some applications in the enterprise over the next few years, its growth has slowed for a reason. In a world that is becoming more cloud and mobile focused, MPLS simply isn’t the right solution for a large number of WAN use cases. SD-WAN is a more modern, cloud-capable, WAN solution that can deliver real business value, not only in dollars and cents, but also in performance and reduced complexity. Understanding and leveraging these benefits can help you get the most out of your WAN.

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