Is SD-WAN going to replace MPLS?

For some time now here at TechGenix we’ve been keeping our eyes on SD-WAN, a technology that Wikipedia describes as something that simplifies the management and operation of a WAN by decoupling (separating) the networking hardware from its control mechanism. That description makes sense given that the acronym itself stands for software-defined wide-area network. We also looked recently at SD-WAN technologies currently available that organizations can use to implement solutions that reduce cost while boosting provider networking performance. What we haven’t looked at in detail is whether it makes sense for most organizations and businesses to migrate their existing multiprotocol label switching (MPLS) wide-area networking technologies to SD-WAN or leave them in place for the foreseeable future. After all, just because a bandwagon happens to roll by doesn’t mean you have to leave everything and jump on board.

Does replacing your existing MPLS infrastructure with SD-WAN make sense or not? That’s the question that many companies are facing nowadays given the many benefits that SD-WAN offers over MPLS. To help us grapple with some of the issues involved in facing such a decision I recently sat down with Ken Presti, vice president of research and analytics at AVANT, a company that specializes in channel sales enablement of next-generation IT technologies. Ken was gracious enough to respond to a few targeted questions I asked on this subject and for the benefit of our TechGenix readers, I’ve shared his responses below.

MITCH: SD-WAN is viewed by some as a disruptive technology for replacing MPLS. But MPLS is a mature technology that many large enterprises rely on. But why exactly does MPLS need disrupting? What’s lacking in it? What doesn’t it provide?

Because of MPLS’s complex nature, highly trained IT staff are often needed on-premises to deal with day-to-day complications and trouble-shooting. SD-WAN only needs IT personnel to do the initial set up, and beyond that it is largely manageable by the in-house team.

Ken: While MPLS is a more mature and complex technology, some enterprises are looking for simple. SD-WAN tends to be easier to administer — in most cases, you can download and set up the service from a template. Enterprises will no longer need Cisco Certified Internetwork Experts (CCIEs) like they do with MPLS.

Another appeal of SD-WAN is the ease of operation. Because of MPLS’s complex nature, highly trained IT staff are often needed on-premises to deal with day-to-day complications and trouble-shooting. SD-WAN only needs IT personnel to do the initial set up, and beyond that, it is largely manageable by the in-house team.

SD-WAN’s cost-saving benefits are also among the main components for companies looking to make the switch from MPLS.

MITCH: So, is it then that the time is up for MPLS in enterprise environments? After all, why should my company continue using something as complex as MPLS if replacing it with a simpler solution like SD-WAN can help me save on my costs and make it easier for our IT team to manage connectivity with our providers?

KEN: Even though MPLS is more complicated, we will see it continuing at the core of most large enterprises, with SD-WAN steadily making inroads from the edges of those networks. Be aware also that breaking existing MPLS contracts can include punitive fees that can rapidly eat away the savings. So timing is definitely an important factor. We recommend you look at this transition in the period before your MPLS contracts come up for renewal.

MITCH: So how exactly does SD-WAN fill the gaps that make MPLS in need of disruption?

KEN: Basically, it comes down to cost, ease of use, and the ability to simplify matters at the edge of the networks, and probably move steadily inwards toward the core.

MITCH: Besides any existing contractual agreements involving MPLS that might need to be broken, what other sorts of factors are holding back enterprises of various sizes from relinquishing MPLS and wholeheartedly adopting SD-WAN?

SD-WAN is indeed less expensive than MPLS, but concerns around security in addition to having to break large-scale MPLS contracts can hold enterprises back.

KEN: Large enterprises tend to move slowly in terms of technology conversion because of the number of approvals needed along the way. MPLS is a very embedded network so in many cases, it doesn’t make sense to do a full rip and replace unless you can build a cost model around doing so. SD-WAN is indeed less expensive than MPLS, but concerns around security in addition to having to break large-scale MPLS contracts can hold enterprises back. If an enterprise has an MPLS contact with a large carrier, breaking the contract can come with a financial penalty which will ultimately “shoot your savings.”

MITCH: So what’s the best way then for an enterprise to switch from MPLS to SD-WAN? What prerequisites and preparatory steps are needed, and what is the best way to manage the change?

KEN: Typically, large enterprises will start near the edge of their network with SD-WAN, building out remote sites. Then as they upgrade the core of their network over time, you’ll see SD-WAN making more incursions toward the core. But MPLS is still going to be around for a long time. Learning to effectively distribute workloads will help manage the change and optimize cost.

MITCH: It sounds to me like it may not be that simple for many enterprises to migrate from MPLS to SD-WAN even if there are no significant financial penalties involved should they break their contract with their existing MPLS provider. If I were managing IT for an enterprise that currently utilizes MPLS, I would probably want some help implementing such a migration. I’m sure that a company like AVANT can help in such a situation.

KEN: One of the most interesting findings of AVANT Analytics’ 6-12 Report is that SD-WAN is disrupting MPLS twice as quickly as UCaaS (unified-communications-as-a-service is disrupting the PBX. The move to UCaaS is very rapid, but our report found that the move to SD-WAN is exponentially faster, really demonstrating the disruptive nature of this technology. And AVANT’s mission is to empower our channel partners with the tools and resources they need to succeed in today’s market.

Featured image: Shutterstock

Mitch Tulloch

Mitch Tulloch is Senior Editor of both WServerNews and FitITproNews and is a widely recognized expert on Windows Server and cloud technologies. He has written more than a thousand articles and has authored or been series editor for over 50 books for Microsoft Press and other publishers. Mitch has also been a twelve-time recipient of the Microsoft Most Valuable Professional (MVP) award in the technical category of Cloud and Datacenter Management. He currently runs an IT content development business in Winnipeg, Canada.

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