For any network security architect reviewing or establishing their network’s WAN architecture, the question of whether to use SD-WAN or MPLS is one of the most important. The choice they make will have implications throughout their business, so it’s important they get it right. However, neither SD-WAN nor MPLS is inherently superior in every situation. There are numerous factors that businesses need to take into account when deciding which option is best for them.
WAN and LAN
To understand SD-WAN and MPLS, you first need to understand what WAN is. Wide area networks (WAN) are networks that are spread out over multiple locations. Here, the term ‘network’ means ‘computers that can connect to one another’. Computers in a single location can connect to one another physically via cables or they can connect to the same wireless router, which acts as a conduit between them. These networks are called local area networks (LAN).
WAN enables LANs that are physically separated to connect to one another as if they were part of a single LAN, regardless of the distance separating them. A school’s IT network is an example of a LAN, while the internet is essentially a giant WAN. LANs and WANs can also connect to one another, which is essential for enabling remote working for many people.
What are SD-WAN and MPLS?
SD-WAN and MPLS stand for Software-Defined Wide Area Network and Multiprotocol Label Switching respectively. They are both architectures used to create WANs, but each one utilises a fundamentally different approach. There are pros and cons to each approach, and you should think carefully before committing to one or the other.
SD-WAN is a newer technology than MPLS and addresses some of the latter’s shortcomings that deterred international businesses from utilising it for their WANs. SD-WAN can be less expensive in many cases and should provide higher performance if all else is equal. However, network security is one of the most vital considerations for any business when it comes to their networks and which approach offers the best data security depends on how they are set up.
Is MPLS more secure than SD-WAN?
By default, MPLS offers superior security to SD-WAN because it utilises an encrypted tunnel that runs through the WAN. This tunnel is similar to those that VPN providers use to connect a user’s device to their servers. However, SD-WAN can be more secure than MPLS, provided a suitable security solution is integrated into the network. Virtually all the leading SD-WAN providers offer solutions that include integrated security as standard, so although MPLS is more secure “out of the box”, in practice, SD-WAN is the safer choice.
It’s also worth noting that although MPLS uses a secure encrypted tunnel to send data around the network, it does not perform any kind of analysis on the data. It is down to the MPLS client and the network firewall to detect and intercept malicious data. Many SD-WAN solutions have the same problem, but because it has become standard practice for providers to include integrated security features in their networks, there are relatively few commercial SD-WAN solutions that don’t include some form of threat detection.
Does SD-WAN cost less than MPLS?
Before the advent of SD-WAN, many organisations utilised MPLS to connect the different branches of their business. However, many have subsequently made the switch to SD-WAN because it’s a more efficient and cost-effective method for sending data across a WAN. MPLS uses a highly inefficient technique for moving data around the network that involves sending everything to a central data server via a chain of individual MPLS connections. The central server then processes the data and forwards it to its destination, again using individual MPLS networks.
SD-WAN, on the other hand, employs a much more efficient solution because the network connections are software-based which enables the network to intelligently route traffic via the most efficient route.
Does SD-WAN perform better than MPLS?
In terms of performance, SD-WAN outperforms MPLS in all but a few niche scenarios. MPLS is a rigid and inflexible approach that provides a fixed level of bandwidth. This wasn’t much of a problem a few decades ago when network traffic was relatively predictable, but things are different now.
Today, the amount of traffic flowing through a data network can vary wildly. Because MPLS provides a fixed rate of bandwidth, the network must always be configured for a worst-case scenario. Although MPLS networks can now support adjustable bandwidth levels to some extent, their inability to analyse traffic and make adjustments automatically makes them far less attractive than SD-WAN.
Another issue for MPLS is that modern data networks often carry data from a plethora of applications, some of which have latency requirements as well as bandwidth that necessitate continuous monitoring. When multiple applications are sending data through the network, SD-WAN can analyse the traffic and pick out the data from latency-sensitive applications, prioritising it accordingly. To do this, SD-WAN utilises various technologies and techniques that are unavailable to MPLS-based networks.
The versatility of SD-WAN goes beyond simply prioritising application traffic. The network can assess bandwidth requirements on the fly and react by automatically initiating connections and balancing the data load among them. Should the available bandwidth drop, SD-WAN has the ability to establish new connections to ensure applications with latency requirements have the bandwidth they need to maintain usability.
Is SD-WAN better than MPLS?
In short, yes; SD-WAN is a better option in the overwhelming majority of use cases. However, this is contingent on the network provider configuring it properly and ensuring they integrate an effective security solution. It’s also worth noting that in the relatively small number of cases where MPLS is preferable, it’s possible to utilise an SD-WAN that incorporates MPLS; it’s not an either-or situation.
Once you factor in the ability of SD-WAN to deploy MPLS for specific critical transactions, it’s hard to think of a scenario in which MPLS would be preferable. That’s not to say it is without its uses, but SD-WAN beats it out in virtually any scenario.
If you would like to learn more about SD-WAN, you can read our article Why Choose SD-WAN as a Managed Service?.
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