The Internet is the Future of the WAN, but MPLS will Persist

Eighty-seven percent of distributed enterprises are increasing their use of the internet as a primary WAN connectivity option, according to Enterprise Management Associates’ (EMA) new research report, “Wide-Area Network Transformation: How Enterprises Succeed with Software-Defined WAN.” Two years ago, only 74 percent of enterprises had such plans.

The transition from private MPLS networks to internet WANs is well documented, and it’s a major reason why software-defined WAN (SD-WAN) is seeing accelerated adoption. But this transition does not spell the end of MPLS-based WAN services.

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EMA’s WAN transformation research, based on a survey of 305 enterprise network decision-makers, asked enterprises to explain how their migration to internet-based WANs affects their use of private WAN services like MPLS. A majority (52 percent) said they were supplementing MPLS with the internet. In other words, these companies are making no changes to their MPLS services.

Another 21 percent are reducing their MPLS bandwidth in favor of the internet, but not cutting the cord on MPLS altogether. Only 15 percent said they were actually retiring MPLS connections and replacing them with the internet.

Drivers of migration to the internet

EMA asked research respondents to identify their top three reasons for making a strategic shift to internet connectivity. Two requirements emerged as leading drivers. Enterprises need network flexibility (42 percent), and they need connectivity to cloud services (42 percent). Network flexibility involved the ability to make changes to the WAN as needed. For instance, VPN configuration changes that don’t require a change ticket to your MPLS provider. Cloud connectivity is an obvious driver, since the internet is the cheapest and simplest connectivity option into the cloud. Direct, private WAN services from providers like Amazon Web Services and Microsoft Azure tend to be complex and expensive.

Secondary drivers were high bandwidth requirements (34 percent) and accelerated delivery of connectivity and network services to remote sites (33 percent) The cost per bit for broadband is much lower than MPLS in most geographies, and high-bandwidth options for MPLS are sometimes hard to find even if you don’t have the budget for it. Accelerated service delivery is apparent to anyone who has tried to purchase network connectivity. A broadband provider can usually light up a site within two or three business days. An MPLS provider will take weeks or months to connect the same site.

Challenges of internet-based WANs

Enterprises identified security risk as the top challenge (34 percent) associated with migrating to internet-based networks. Legacy network architectures usually centralized their internet breakout, backhauling traffic over the MPLS network to their data centers, where network security appliances could screen both inbound and outbound internet traffic. With internet as a primary network connection, enterprises need to rearchitect their security. Site-to-site internet VPN becomes essential. Remote sites will need often need local next-generation firewalls, intrusion protect appliances, and other security services.

The next most pressing challenge to internet WAN is the complexity of managing multiple ISP relationships. Suddenly the network engineering team may find itself dealing with a different ISP in every region, whereas the incumbent MPLS provider was able to offer a global service via its own network footprint and partnerships with other providers. Moreover, business continuity requirements will probably mean each site needs to be served by at least two ISPs. These relationships can be difficult, especially in regions where the network team doesn’t know the local market. In some geographies, the network team may not even speak the language of the local ISP.

Finally, network visibility is a major issue for 22 percent of enterprises. ISPs don’t offer service level agreements (SLA), which means they also don’t offer SLA reporting. Network managers will need to adopt new tools to monitor network performance.

SD-WAN and the internet

EMA’s research found that 97 percent of distributed enterprises are engaged with SD-WAN, and 28 percent have actually completed their implementation of the technology. SD-WAN solutions typically optimize and secure internet connectivity. SD-WAN solutions also aggregate connectivity across multiple circuits and often have traffic steering features that can protect performance during network blackouts or brownouts. 

EMA asked enterprises that are using or planning to use SD-WAN to describe the kind of aggregated connectivity they have or plan to have with SD-WAN. A plurality (43 percent) prefer a hybrid network with aggregated MPLS and internet. Another 26 percent are eschewing MPLS altogether, preferring to aggregate multiple links of internet connectivity. SD-WAN will be an essential solution for enterprises that are embracing the internet, but there are other technologies that can help. For instance, 51 percent of enterprises have identified managed security services like DDS prevention services as technology that can optimize internet performance. Furthermore, 50 percent are using applicable WAN optimization features, and 45 percent are using managed DNS services to optimize the internet.

Every enterprise will have its own strategy for migrating to the internet. EMA believes SD-WAN will be essential to nearly all organizations that make this transition. However, given the fact that MPLS will persist in most enterprise networks, network engineers have a lot of options available to them.