The business case for SD-WAN: Because MPLS is Not Fit for the Cloud

November 15, 2017

If there is one thing crucial to remain competitive in today’s global marketplace, its connectivity. As critical business applications are moving to the cloud and with the wide adoption of SaaS and mobile applications in the workplace, connectivity becomes a crucial business asset with the direct effect on the bottom line.

The pressure is on the IT departments to ensure fast, reliable, and secure connectivity across the globe. That means making sure the wide area network (WAN) that connects branch offices, data centers, cloud services and SaaS applications can handle the connectivity needs of digitally empowered global organizations. Multiprotocol label switching protocol (MPLS) based networks, can no longer answer the business needs of a global enterprise. Software-defined Wide Area Networks (SD-WAN) can get the job done. Here is why.

Cloud Requires a New Approach To Enterprise Networking

Cloud computing is among the most disruptive of recent technologies, removing the traditional boundaries of IT, creating new markets, spurring the mobility trend, enabling advances in unified communications and much more.

Rather than building, upgrading and maintaining capex-based systems and applications in on-premises data centers, organizations are increasingly employing cloud delivery models such as infrastructure-as-a-service (IaaS) and software-as-a-service (SaaS) to take advantage of new opportunities. Even those that must maintain on-site data centers because of legacy systems, regulatory compliance or other factors are opting for hybrid IT strategies that include cloud technologies.

The problem is that as companies adopt cloud-based services, deploy more bandwidth-intensive applications, and connect an increasing number of devices and remote locations, business requirements change and new technical challenges arise.

Particularly with SaaS, many business critical applications are no longer hosted in on-site data centers. Instead, remote locations generate an increasing amount of traffic bypasses the data center and goes directly to the Internet. Most legacy architectures cannot handle the new network traffic patterns. With network traffic traversing through multiple hops in the network, poor performance ensues.

In addition to cloud technologies, many companies are increasing their use of network-based, often cloud-powered unified communications and voice over IP (VoIP). As VoIP traffic is more sensitive than conventional web text data traffic to network traffic transmission quality, better management is required for network traffic latency, packet loss, jitter and quality of service (QoS). Any disruption in packet delivery will cause lower voice quality.

Until recently, enterprises had two choices to handling cloud and VoIP traffic —- a fast and secure but extremely expensive and slow to provision MPLS or use of the public Internet, with accompanying security and performance challenges.

The Disadvantages of MPLS

MPLS has long been the go-to solution for connecting distant locations across the globe. MPLS connections are secure, as they are private networks that never touch the public Internet. They enable traffic prioritization using the class of service (CoS) feature, providing a high level of reliability and performance.

Unfortunately, MPLS are extremely costly and entail lengthy provisioning times – modern enterprises cannot afford to wait for months to connect remote offices to their networks. Because it is carrier-dependent, MPLS can take months for connection and configuration work to be completed.  It also uses dedicated proprietary hardware, lengthening the circuit provisioning times and complicating configuration and management of connectivity across multiple sites.

MPLS circuits are extremely expensive, with a router required at each site, access circuits, bandwidth cost, and the associated CoS fee. Not surprisingly, management costs increase disproportionately with the number of branches and services supported. Plus, the inability to adapt the network to the application can cause companies to increase costs by over-provisioning the capacity.   

The Downsides to Internet and Hybrid Options

Internet broadband-based connectivity is less expensive than MPLS, and often can augment or replace traditional MPLS-based networks. However, it comes with performance limitations and other challenges.

Managing hybrid WAN topologies, which combine MPLS and the Internet, with legacy approaches to branch networking is often costly and ineffective as well. Even small configuration changes are difficult and can compromise a distributed network availability, performance and security. There is also a lack of visibility into network behavior and application performance.

Direct Internet access at multiple remote sites can bypass data center security services, weakening an organization’s information security posture. End-to-end visibility is compromised by encrypted apps and vendor opacity. And, the lack of SLAs for broadband Internet and limited MPLS capacity results in unpredictable performance slowdowns.

The SD-WAN – An Appropriate Solution For Modern Enterprise

Unlike the alternatives, SD-WAN networks can readily meet the needs of businesses leveraging the latest technologies and offers both OpEx and CapEx savings. Gartner, the technology research and advisory company, refers to it as “…a new and transformational way to architect, deploy and operate corporate WANs, as it provides a dramatically simplified way of deploying and managing remote branch office connectivity in a cost-effective manner.”

Likewise, IDC, the market intelligence firm, notes that SD-WAN “…offers compelling value for its ability to defray MPLS costs, simplify and automate WAN operations, improve application traffic management, and dynamically deliver on the cost and efficiency benefits associated with intelligent path selection.”

One of the biggest benefits of SD-WAN is that it offers centralized, software-based control and policy management that shifts network administrators’ focus from network to application management. Instead of managing thousands of manually configured routers, they can use virtual network design, zero-touch provisioning and business-aligned policy-based orchestration to centralize management.

There is Much More

If you need more reasons to consider SD-WAN over MPLS or other options, consider that SD-WAN offers:

  • The ability to connect locations with multiple data services running in active/active configurations. Sub-second network failover allows sessions to move to new transports in the event of downtime without disrupting upper application.
  • Encrypted connectivity that secures traffic in transit across any transport.
  • The capability to immediately scale bandwidth up or down, so you can ensure that critical applications receive the bandwidth they need when they need it.
  • Bring up a new office in minutes, instead of weeks and months that it takes with MPLS. SD-WAN nodes configure themselves and can use 4G/LTE for instant deployment.

There are too many good things about SD-WAN to cover in a single blog. To learn more on the subject, subscribe to the Cato blog.

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Dave Greenfield

Dave Greenfield

Dave Greenfield is a veteran of IT industry. He’s spent more than 20 years as an award-winning journalist and independent technology consultant. Today, he serves as a secure networking evangelist for Cato Networks.