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Are MPLS network deployments in decline?

There has been a fair amount of credence given to some media statements that are suggesting MPLS network services are decreasing in popularity. 

I believe WAN technology is becoming less about products but more about capability due to the rise of cloud services and the use of the Internet.

A few years ago, the default IT Management decision was split between companies with a direct interest in private services (MPLS) and companies with an interest in public services (the IPSec VPN). I appreciate this is kind of view is over simplifying things but you get the idea.

Today, IT capability is becoming complicated. The hard part is figuring out how to service the unbelievable technology we hold in our hands together with the resources on offer from cloud vendors.

When I say, unbelievable, I really do mean it in the true sense of the word.

The latest phones have processing power comparable to desktop PCs of only a few years ago. When these devices are coupled with access to applications which reside on both the corporate infrastructure and the Internet, they become one of the most valuable devices within the Enterprise.

If you read various telecoms publications, experts believe the future is mobile, I think they might be right. (Note, clearly laptops remain very relevant in combination with tablets and phones.)

The way we work is directly taking us down a path of network design and architecture which is more flexible.

MPLS vs SD-WAN

Perhaps the biggest challenger for proponents of MPLS networks is SD-WAN. SDN promises to free the Enterprise from restrictive, private MPLS by offering granular traffic prioritisation, security and privacy within a single box or application.

The fact remains, careful consideration must be given to the underlying connectivity used with SD-WAN. There is no doubt the Internet is a scaled platform vs even a few years ago but IT teams must still consider the laws of physics. In other words, the distance between locations on a global network coupled with the use of multiple ISP backbones could degrade performance.

Fig 1 is an example of an SD-WAN network deployed over multiple ISP backbones.

MPLS Network

With this said, regardless of the actual product, analysis of your specific requirements vs the provider’s capability remains as important as ever. If your organisation begins by asking the right questions, the answers will determine if any WAN product is fit for purpose, this applies to both MPLS, VPLS and SDN.

First, the top 3 reasons why MPLS remains relevant.

1. MPLS VPN services are delivered across private infrastructures, IPSec and other encryption services are not required.

2. MPLS QoS (Quality of Service) provides the Enterprise with an ability to prioritise applications including real time traffic – Voice, Video – and other mission critical apps such as Citrix.

3. Service level agreements which include latency, jitter, uptime and other performance factors are generally more focussed across private based infrastructures.

And now the top 3 reasons why SD-WAN services are of interest.

  1. SD-WAN typically leverages the Internet to deliver secure, highly flexible, encrypted services to  any form of device and connectivity.
  2. The promise of SD-WAN services offers complete control and flexibility via easy to use software driven portals.
  3. The innovation of SDN means the Enterprise should see new features and enhancements released on a much more regular time frame vs MPLS network products.

Is a hybrid WAN the future?

The typical network today is not generally based on a single product or service. In fact, the majority of deployments consist of core MPLS network connectivity between key offices with SD-WAN (or DMVPN) connectivity over the Internet for smaller offices and remote users. Data Centre and hosting facilities are connected via layer 2 VPLS or point to point / multipoint connectivity.

(Architecture and WAN design is out of scope here).

As I have previously mentioned, the requirements for Enterprise business is not simply based on one platform. The result is generally a hybrid. There are exceptions here, a national or well scaled global architecture could be delivered over a single SD-WAN deployment but as we mentioned earlier, careful thought must be given to application performance in terms if packet latency.

I have personally worked with one organisation in the US where their platform is based on hybrid connectivity. The circuit is delivered as a point to point Ethernet into the provider’s network but an intelligent device allows the business to decides what the circuit should become, i.e. layer 2, layer 3 or even Internet. (If you would benefit from knowing the provider name, drop me a message.)

Conclusion

Everybody has an opinion on whether MPLS is in decline. I tend to take the view that actually ‘private’ based connectivity will always be a requirement for Enterprise business, even just from the perspective of privacy. So, no, MPLS is not doomed and should remain an essential part of the tool-kit.

I do believe that SD-WAN will seriously erode the popularity of MPLS VPN as the default WAN type, especially for organisations where they are able to predict performance of their Internet connectivity.

If you are either deploying SD-WAN over a single IP backbone or multiple ‘known’ backbones, there is every possibility SD-WAN could be the only technology required depending on your view point.

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I think for sometime, it will be hybrid, then as SD-WAN matures and more features are accrued, MPLS may exist as secondary ,namesake for business critical applications.
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