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MPLS & SD-WAN: The past and future of networking
by Paul Davenport Paul Davenport on

In an industry where acronyms and initialisms are a dime a dozen, few tech terms are as ubiquitous in the world of enterprise networking as MPLS and SD-WAN. Sure, SaaS, PaaS, IaaS and UCaaS represent buzzworthy new workflows that have changed how enterprise IT teams are managing their tech footprints. But when it comes to the underlying networks that support these new tools (and ultimately determine how much value these services can deliver), understanding the ins and outs of MPLS and SD-WAN is step one for anyone managing an enterprise network in 2020.

What is MPLS?

MPLS stands for Multi-protocol label switching. This is a technique that establishes traffic paths between distant nodes over a private network, helping to speed up the delivery of certain network traffic by directing data via path labels rather than long network addresses. Essentially, this technique ensures that traffic flows are pre-determined, ensuring data avoids having to be processed through complex lookups in an internet routing table. Instead, “labeled” traffic can simply go directly from one node (a remote office location, for instance) to another predetermined node, with minimal interruption.

This method is used not only to ensure the speedy delivery of certain traffic, but also helps maintain data quality for real-time protocols, like voice and video traffic. At the same time, it allows networking teams to virtually isolate packets and assign higher priority to certain kinds of traffic, ensuring non-critical apps don’t create network bottlenecks.

What is SD-WAN?

Though the MEF (Metro Ethernet Forum) recently assigned a lengthy definition to what SD-WAN products should deliver, these tools are pretty easy to classify from a high-level: Software that sits on top of both MPLS and Internet connections to help more easily manage network traffic from a central location.

Teams can easily implement, scale and manage SD-WAN tools faster and more cost-effectively than with MPLS because configuration is largely performed by IT instead of some outside entity..

That said, MPLS and SD-WAN aren’t necessarily competing with each other as network management technologies. Rather, they are two essential pieces (SD-WAN increasingly so) of the larger network management puzzle that enterprises are deploying to keep their increasingly sprawling and evolving networks under control.

Where both fall short

But even combined, these two technologies are only part of a larger ecosystem of networking solutions that enterprise teams are deploying to keep their network backbones running smoothly. For instance, MPLS only establishes network paths between two nodes, and can’t ensure that traffic gets delivered into the LAN at either end of the MPLS connection.

Similarly, while SD-WAN can help teams control the MPLS and Internet pathways that traffic takes across the WAN, most solutions are blind beyond the edge of the network, and can’t deliver visibility into how end users are experiencing apps locally. To that end, most SD-WAN solutions can really only deliver assurance once traffic is delivered between point A and point B, with little granularity into the paths in between (when traffic travels over the Internet instead of MPLS), let alone beyond the edge.

To gain this granularity, teams need to employ network monitoring solutions that can help see beyond the edge and local firewalls, as well as every hop that data travels between end users and the traffic source.

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Filed Under: industry insights

Tags: network performance, network management, network performance monitoring, enterprise network, enterprise WAN, enterprise, UCaaS, PaaS, IaaS, SaaS, LAN, WAN, SDWAN, SD WAN, MPLS

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