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Moving away from MPLS - is it worth it?

The case for MPLS is fading. But with the right choices your business network can shine on.

You might think a business internet provider would be derisory about MPLS. Actually, the opposite is true.

With a passion for global data networks, we both respect and understand MPLS for what it is—and what it’s done for our clients’ businesses down the years. After all, some of us were in networking before MPLS emerged; we’ve seen plenty of technologies rise and fade.

And younger engineers don’t always realise how deeply uncertain the future looked in the 1990s, when Big Telco fought holy wars with Silicon Valley over abstruse points of the OSI 7-layer networking model. Was it better to switch at Layer 2 or route at Layer 3? Was security vital at 4 or needless before 6? Would copper remain sacred, or would fibre one day reach the kerb?

We all know how that turned out. But at the time, even whether the future involved circuits or packets remained in doubt.

So when MPLS emerged in the nineties and noughties—in essence, imposing a familiar circuit-switched discipline on rebellious hordes of packetised data—it was right for its time. Global carriers understood its principles; network managers appreciated the simplicity of fewer hops and handoffs. And some considered the war over.

But technology evolves. It delivers solutions the market demands, and those solutions succeed or fail based on customer need at the time. And times, of course, change.

Today, business internet providers—offering connectivity as simple and straightforward as your home broadband, but with the same SLAs and quality you’d expect from enterprise-scale MPLS—are solving the CIO’s most pressing question: how to maintain MPLS-level reliability and assurance, without its unsustainable legacy costs?

Let’s deep-dive what that means for those using MPLS, but looking beyond it … and how CIOs can defray the risks of leaving it behind.

To keep or to let go?

Migrating from one technology to another implies making choices. Among the WAN managers we talk to, those choices may come in four types. Let’s leap them one by one.

1. Carrier costs that don’t go away.

We’ve explained before that MPLS isn’t One Size Fits All. In fact, relatively few organisations with MPLS use it as their sole solution.

Fully a fifth of healthcare organisations use business broadband for at least part of their WAN. And with many MNCs now embracing the cloud, funnelling all enterprise data over MPLS to the data centre is inefficient[1]. Cloud revenues are growing 17% a year thanks to Amazon, Microsoft, Google and others. Even public sectors are getting in on the act: 87% of the British public sector CIOs see an increasing role for the cloud in their operations.

For many of these hybrid MPLS setups, Multiprotocol Label Switching on a Tier-1 pipe and an array of other providers in the last mile (and metre) works perfectly well as a stopgap. But of course, the costs of MPLS are still in there.

And they are high costs. Business internet at a similar level of security and availability is typically 3-4x cheaper[2], and 10-12x in some cases. Bottom line: if MPLS still forms part of your solution, it’s worth looking for ways to ease it out. Going hybrid probably won’t be the most cost-effective choice.

2. Lessons in locking down security.

MPLS has a deserved reputation for being secure. With a close relationship between the customer’s network and the carrier owning the physical infrastructure, privacy and security are natural bedfellows.

What’s missing from this picture is the progress made in SD-WAN technologies since MPLS first emerged. Early VPNs simply encrypted data at both ends as it bounced around the Internet; today’s SD-WAN creates a completely virtualised network overlay, riding on the public network but separate to it. A network that’s fully private, with whatever level of encryption, authentication, and other safeguards your applications need.

And it’s more flexible than MPLS, since it’s accessible by plain-vanilla business broadband—meaning you can connect your most out-of-the-way offices.

CASE IN POINT: Elekta

It's a solution medical technologists Elekta saw back in 2014. Clinical imaging requires reliable bandwidth—which had led to MPLS connectivity for their backup infrastructure. But its high cost prompted them to explore internet-based solutions with Globalinternet, initially in hybrid mode. Soon seeing impressive results, they decided to transition to an all-internet model for their SD-WAN—and they’ve never looked back. For Elekta, moving away from MPLS proved both flexible and cost-effective.

For today’s SD-WAN, the cost advantage of business internet over MPLS is already clear. But for many the security advantage is just as strong. Business internet is starting to make more and more sense.

3. Maintaining connectivity across contexts.

Something else matters. Something “big canvas” technologies like MPLS (and ATM, and SONET, and Frame Relay) purported to solve, but couldn’t: the complexity businesses face on the ground. Local infrastructure, service availability, legal and regulatory environments.

“Local conditions don’t just differ widely from country to country—they can change from street to street!”

MPLS makes a good fist of security. And once made the case for cost-effectiveness. But it’s never made much claim for flexibility. And if your locations span a gleaming HQ in London, a rural business park in the Louisiana swamp, and a tin-roofed prefab in a Brazilian mining town, that’s a problem.

The best solutions to these local factors tend to be, well, local. People who work in and understand the same conditions as their customers, who can react quickly to problems as they arise. When you combine that local expertise—such as a reliable ISP—with the simplicity of a global SLA, perhaps via an ISP aggregator, you get the best of both worlds.

Once again, business internet provides an incentive for moving away from MPLS entirely. Let’s look at one more brow-furrowing factor before the case is made conclusively.

4. Sheltering from bad weather.

Lags, drops, and timeouts were part and parcel of internet access … in the 90s. But the internet isn’t what it used to be. Today, even in consumer internet access, they’re no longer a big issue. Despite demand rising daily as millions watch YouTube videos and Netflix in HD. It’s still “the internet”.

“With business broadband, where bandwidth demands are going up 20-40% annually, the story’s even brighter.”

With WAN optimisation solving middle mile issues in SD-WANs, ISP aggregators can provide business internet with rock-solid SLAs no different to Tier-1 MPLS carriers. In fact, they often provide servicesto those same carriers—meaning even “pure” MPLS is often a mix. And why not, if it provides a great service to the customer?

For now, MPLS remains the dominant transport for WANs. But things are changing … fast. More and more MPLS customers are sidestepping the hybrid model, and moving straight from cost-heavy MPLS to cost-effective business internet for every SD-WAN.

And—just as packet-switched IP and fibre won decisively over circuits and copper—companies making the change stand to gain a tremendous competitive advantage.

Conclusion: case closed for MPLS vs. internet.

MPLS is an amazing technology. Just like ATM, Frame Relay, SONET, and anything else you remember. But its time in the sun is over.

With high-bandwidth, uncontended connectivity via local ISPs, aggregated into a single SLA by an experienced aggregator, organisations at enterprise scale no longer need to let go any of the benefits—reliability, assurance, uptime—that private networks have always delivered.

And business internet does it a lot cheaper, too.

References:

(1) https://www.gartner.com/smarterwithgartner/4-trends-impacting-cloud-adoption-in-2020/

(2) https://globalinter.net/blog/guest-blog-what-happens-when-you-leave-mpls-behind