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Virtual WAN providers challenge traditional MPLS

Virtual WAN providers are opening up wide area network options to replace MPLS, using SDN and NFV to create overlays that overcome the public Internet's drawbacks.

I recently had a conversation with the head of networking at a name-brand, country-wide retail firm. He was thinking of upgrading his WAN to a "next-generation" technology like MPLS.

"Don't do it," I said. "At least not without looking at some of the up-and-coming virtual WAN companies that are emerging."

It's true. These virtual WAN providers hold the potential to be game changing. To see how, here's a bit of background: Although 10 years ago, MPLS was indeed state of the art, it's been overtaken by a number of emerging technologies. At the transport level, Carrier Ethernet has become the most commonly deployed technology -- edging out MPLS in our 2014/2015 benchmark, with 83% deploying Carrier Ethernet and just 68% deploying MPLS.

These virtual WANs can be cheaper, faster to implement and more secure than traditional WANs (like MPLS).

That doesn't mean Carrier Ethernet is replacing MPLS one-for-one. Instead, it's become more widely deployed, particularly for connectivity to or between data centers, at the same time that MPLS is being less widely deployed.

But what's taking the place of MPLS?

That would be plain old IP services, but often bundled together in new and innovative ways, leveraging the power of software-defined networking (SDN) and network functions virtualization (NFV). And a whole crop of software and appliance companies are emerging to make that happen by supplying overlay intelligence that mitigates the weaknesses of IP networks (lack of reliability and security) by monitoring performance, optimizing traffic routes, and including integrated encryption. In effect, they're virtualizing the WAN.

There are two main camps of emerging vWAN companies. The first category is what I call "true" vWAN providers. These players rely on SDN and NFV technology to deliver high-performance, encrypted, traffic-optimized networks across standard IP pipes, often bonded (or multihomed) together to increase bandwidth as needed. Examples of these companies include (in alphabetical order): CloudGenix, Distrix, Pertino, SaiSei, Talari, VeloCloud and VIPtela.

The second category includes "vWAN-adjacent" providers. That is, they deliver some virtual WAN capabilities (again often leveraging SDN or NfV), but focus on specific use cases like content distribution or Internet of Things support, or offer specific capabilities like orchestration. These include (again in alphabetical order) companies like Aryaka, Akamai, Ayla, Cloudflare, Glue Networks, Midokura and PLUMgrid.

For now, I'm focusing on the true virtual WAN providers, because from a WAN-replacement perspective, they're potential game-changers. The exact architecture varies by vendor, and the emphasis varies based on whether the company is primarily focusing on providing security and encryption or performance optimization. But the basic concept is the same: By deploying intelligence (either as software apps or standalone appliances), enterprise users can build high-performance, high-security networks on top of less-secure, less-reliable ones. It's a similar approach to the one Google took 15 years ago when it became one of the first companies to build a highly reliable, highly secure data center out of arrays of unreliable, insecure X86 servers.

These virtual WANs can be cheaper, faster to implement and more secure than traditional WANs (like MPLS) -- in much the same way that virtual computing is cheaper and more agile than its server-bound predecessors.

Why does this matter? Because IT professionals like my friend need to consider virtual WAN providers as alternatives to traditional WAN services. And telecom professionals who work for carriers need to figure out how to integrate these technologies into their service offerings -- or risk being reduced to IP bit-pipes.

Next Steps

Enterprises look to supplement MPLS with public Internet WAN services

Programmable WAN can provision virtual network segments on demand

Understanding hybrid WAN services

SDN WAN network programmability addresses WAN demands

This was last published in December 2014

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How long do you think it will be before virtual WAN technologies start eating away at MPLS use by the enterprise?
With virtual Wide Access Networks (WAN) already eating away at MPLS services, I suspect that WAN will have a much stronger sway in the industry by the end of 2015. Whether this sway will be big enough to become the leader of such tech remains to be seen, but if current trends are predictors of the future, WAN could be on top by the end of 2015.