SD-WAN vs. MPLS: Which Is Right for Your Business?

Should your organization use SD-WAN or MPLS? Both SD-WAN and MPLS technologies make it possible to manage your organization's network infrastructure, but they do so in vastly different ways. Whether your organization needs SD-WAN or MPLS depends on your organization's needs – whether it needs superior security, latency, connectivity or scalability.

The Basics of an SD-WAN

SD-WAN stands for “software-defined wide area network.” An SD-WAN is defined on a software level and can consequently use either dedicated lines or public networks. SD-WAN virtualizes network infrastructure, making it possible to change network routing on a software-level. In addition to connecting mix-and-match network links such as cellular and broadband connections, SD-WAN solutions can also provide security virtualization, including orchestration and policy. 

The Advantages of SD-WAN Architecture

SD-WAN solutions are considered far more scalable than MPLS solutions, as changes can be made on a software level, and a multitude of connections can be leveraged. As new security technologies emerge, SD-WAN architecture is also often seen as more secure — an SD-WAN solution can enable end-to-end encryption across an entire network. As SD-WAN technology is run through software and virtualization, it is naturally more cost-effective than most MPLS infrastructures.

The Basics of MPLS

MPLS stands for multiprotocol label switching. Imagine MPLS networks as a series of switches and routers that use packet-forwarding technology to build out an accessible, stable network. Unlike an SD-WAN solution, an MPLS infrastructure must use dedicated connections. An MPLS sits between Layer 2 and Layer 3 and includes resource orchestrators, gateways, and customer premise equipment. When changes are made, they must be completed on a hardware level.

The Advantages of MPLS Architecture

MPLS architectures are already extant for many businesses; some organizations don't see a reason to switch to SD-WAN vs. MPLS just yet. There are reasons why an organization may see advantages to an MPLS architecture, beyond simply being adapted to legacy solutions. MPLS solutions do have tighter controls over their systems because everything is hardware-based. An organization that puts security at a premium may want to continue with its existing MPLS solution to avoid any additional exposure.

At this point, MPLS solutions are becoming specific solutions to solve discrete problems. MPLS infrastructure has dropped by about 20 percent in recent years, with SD-WAN swiftly growing. In part, this is because SD-WAN is more easily integrated into cloud-based architecture. Many organizations today aren't maintaining on-premises solutions, but are instead maintaining a cloud-based, software-as-a-service network infrastructure.

Cost Savings through SD-WAN

Though there's an upfront cost for any transition, many organizations will be able to save money long-term through SD-WAN solutions. MPLS solutions are expensive because they require dedicated lines, whereas SD-WAN solutions can grow with the organization through software and virtualization. Companies that are hesitant to pay the upfront cost of an SD-WAN solution should look at the long-term benefits.

Scalability through SD-WAN

When MPLS solutions are scaled, hardware has to be commissioned and physically deployed. This hardware also needs to be physically maintained. When SD-WAN solutions are scaled, it's simply a matter of adjusting the virtualized system, adding connections, and otherwise balancing the network infrastructure. SD-WAN solutions are more inherently scalable than MPLS solutions, both because they are easier to scale and easier to maintain. 

Security through SD-WAN

For small, highly secure networks, MPLS is often the solution of choice. Everything can be controlled on a hardware level. Therefore, it may seem contradictory that SD-WAN solutions are often chosen for the purposes of security. But on larger networks and more flexible networks, SD-WAN provides software-level control over the entirety of the network infrastructure. Not only can end-to-end encryption be achieved, but the SD-WAN solution itself is easier to maintain and consequently more likely to be kept up to date.

Improved Performance through SD-WAN

There is one area in which MPLS tends to outperform SD-WAN connectivity: latency. Because MPLS solutions are direct connections -- and the infrastructure tends to be simpler -- MPLS solutions can route packets faster. But otherwise, SD-WAN solutions tend to be more consistent and reliable. Because SD-WAN solutions don't rely upon direct connections, there aren't bandwidth issues to deal with; SD-WAN solutions provide far greater resources. Further, because SD-WAN solutions can connect multiple connections with ease, failover systems and load balancing can be achieved more easily.

Reduced Complexity through SD-WAN

Though MPLS solutions are ideally secure, private and simple, they grow in complexity over time. Because everything is hardware-based, new switches, routers and other pieces of equipment need to be introduced. As these pieces of equipment are introduced, complexity grows and the system becomes more difficult and cumbersome to manage. SD-WAN solutions are fully virtualized, which makes it easier to maintain, improve and optimize the system. Furthermore, SD-WAN solutions can have their operations almost entirely outsourced.

SD-WAN vs MPLS: What's Right for Your Organization?

While there are a number of differences, the major difference between SD-WAN and MPLS solutions is that SD-WAN is software-defined and that MPLS is hardware-defined. MPLS is a traditional technology that already exists in many offices — SD-WAN technology is comparatively newer, and many organizations are shifting toward SD-WAN adoption.

For modern businesses, there are some clear SD-WAN benefits over MPLS. SD-WAN architecture is more agile, affordable and versatile. But MPLS solutions haven't disappeared; there are always cases in which MPLS solutions may be best. Every office is unique. MPLS solutions provide greater levels of control over the network infrastructure, better security and privacy, and — in some cases — superior connectivity.

Further, most businesses today are moving toward the cloud — and when organizations set up hybrid or cloud-based solutions, an SD-WAN infrastructure makes more sense. SD-WAN infrastructures can be managed through a third-party managed solutions provider, thereby lightening the load for the organization.