MPLS: Dead or Alive?

14 April 2018 | James Pearce

Atchison Frazer from Talari looks at whether rumours of the demise of MPLS are greatly exaggerated in the face of SD-WAN

Atchison FrazerPCs, servers and other IT equipment were once replaced like clockwork on three-year cycles as their warranties expired and newer models became available. But things are changing. More recently, some organisations are opting to hold on to aging hardware longer; in some cases, virtualising it for use in hyperconverged infrastructures to support remote and branch offices.

This approach can be a low-risk/high-reward method for extracting more value from existing IT investments. Similarly, organisations are looking to do the same with their wide area networks (WAN). In particular, many companies have invested heavily in MPLS (Multi-Protocol Label Switching) technology to insure reliable connections for real-time applications. But as a service that must be purchased from a carrier, MPLS is expensive; for more so than sending traffic over the public Internet.

So, with significant MPLS assets across their WANs, organisations are looking for ways to get positive returns on these links, as they look to new technologies such as software-defined WANs (SD-WANs), which make commodity Internet an increasingly appealing alternative.

MPLS has been around since the turn of the century and depending on who you believe, it is either on the verge of extinction or primed for many more years of use. It’s easy to see why the first belief is popular thinking, but the second one is currently closer to reality.

The ‘MPLS is dying’ argument hinges on the major advances available in SD-WAN solutions, which offer comparable Quality of Service (QoS), easier routing changes, centralised management, more efficient use of bandwidth and less expensive service plans. With an SD-WAN, an expensive MPLS architecture can be swapped out for commodity broadband without sacrificing QoS. Additionally, multiple devices can be consolidated and simplified with a unified SD-WAN fabric.

At the same time, even some carriers offering MPLS have reported increased sales as SD-WAN gains traction and staying power. This trend makes sense considering that SD-WAN is a perfect platform for connecting and optimising different transport types - including MPLS links. However, MPLS was never designed to accommodate modern cloud and SaaS architectures that are placing digital transformation demands on legacy WAN topologies.

Not the End of the Road 

A 2017 Nemertes Research survey revealed the ongoing utility of MPLS even as SD-WAN gains traction. It found that 21 percent of respondents had implemented SD-WAN, but that 60 percent of that group planned no changes to their MPLS deployments in the wake of new SD-WAN layering.

SD-WAN offers several benefits to existing MPLS connections, including:

Better cost controls: The strategic use of inexpensive broadband alongside traditional MPLS will reduce any growth in WAN-related expenses.

Superior reliability and redundancy: Like other WAN links, MPLS links are enhanced by the granular performance tracking, bandwidth reservation and real-time path selection features of SD-WAN.

A better on-ramp to the cloud: SD-WAN’s compatibility with any mode of transport enables organisations to address the specific shortcomings of MPLS such as being a poor fit for SaaS, with alternatives like Internet, without having to ditch MPLS entirely.

An SD-WAN solution is sort of like a backward compatible games console. For example, the Microsoft Xbox One can play Xbox 360 games dating back to 2005 in addition to its own titles. It’s a platform that accommodates cutting-edge technologies while still being able to support older ones that its users are already heavily invested in.

So, rather than being responsible for the downfall of trusty MPLS, SD-WAN could end up prolonging its life expectancy and help companies to get more out of their MPLS investments.