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Price vs. design, how do you choose MPLS service providers?

When you meet with several MPLS service providers, you need to weigh the cost vs. the design of the product. Cheaper products might not give you all the capabilities you need.

If your goal is simply to achieve the lowest possible multiprotocol label switching pricing, there are plenty of opportunities to engage with MPLS service providers and resellers eager to win your business. However, their WAN design and proposal should be firmly aligned to your business specifics. Without alignment, IT teams face the prospect of buying an MPLS service as a commodity, resulting in the potential for major issues to occur throughout downtime and application performance in the future.

Begin with an RFI process and capability needs before MPLS pricing

The strategy of inviting multiple providers to attend sales meetings is a time-consuming one. Furthermore, it presents difficulties when you're attempting to understand what each service provider can offer. We recommend releasing a request for information (RFI), which should be fairly simplebut ask key questions that will enable your team to understand whether to proceed with engagement. We have witnessed several organizations that send out spreadsheets that outline a list of the required bandwidth and circuits -- e.g., 100 Mbps or 1 Gbps with Ethernet bandwidth tiers. While this approach may achieve competitive MPLS pricing, the design will not be comprehensive enough, and your business will not benefit from the provider's actual capability.

When assessing your WAN requirements, here are the top three considerations to keep in mind:

1. Understand the basics of VPN capability and reach.

A service provider's reach can be difficult to determine because information is based on wholesale carrier agreements, not true coverage. The true reach and capability of your prospective providers is determined by examining their MPLS capability. This is defined by the MPLS provider edge (PE) devices they have deployed.

In order to get the information you need, you should request that prospective suppliers provide details about PE coverage outside of their wholesale capability. Their PE infrastructure will essentially govern latency, jitter, resilience, diversity and ultimately, your MPLS pricing due to the tail circuit's length. As an aside, when discussing MPLS, the managed or unmanaged router located at your offices is referred to as the customer edge router (CE router). CE devices may be leased or owned.

2. Consider your prospective VPN service providers' approach to design.

Avoid the subject of cost until you understand how your provider will design your network. Any organization selling high-value services must operate under a diagnostic approach that aligns your business objectives with their capability. Network Union has written extensively about how to consider application flow, resiliency and uptime, support, documentation, migration, changes and so forth versus MPLS pricing.

Without a workflow being designed across the disciplines of technical detail, business and budget, the end result will often miss certain aspects. There are many elements that will impact cost -- from quality of service (QoS) through to the capability of resources and statistics. Without a firm understanding of the design, the MPLS pricing will not be accurate.

3. Ask questions about network project management and the MPLS VPN connectivity migration.

Any service provider should be able to tell you what you can expect regarding migration and project management, together with the details of what it will require to configure and deliver network services. In many respects, understanding these capabilities requires asking a few simple questions.

Once your team understands the design, they should be able to articulate where potential issues exist. It is my belief that the key to successfully procuring any complex service requires both the knowledge of the services to be delivered and the experience to set reasonable expectations. The project cannot just be about associated costs.

This was last published in January 2015

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