MPLS Lives On In Hybrid WAN Era

EMA finds that the rise of internet connectivity for next-gen WAN does not spell the death of MPLS.

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Enterprises are increasingly leveraging the public internet for primary network access in their wide-area networks (WANs), but MPLS and other, more expensive managed network connections are not going away.

Enterprise Management Associates (EMA) published “Next Generation Wide-Area Networking,” a research paper based on a survey of 200 networking professionals in Europe and North America. Among enterprises who reported growth in the number of internet connections at their remote sites, 74% said they were planning to replace MPLS and other traditional WAN services with internet as a primary network connection.

Networking pros offered several reasons for this transition. The most common included direct connectivity to external cloud services (38%), superior performance (37%), and higher bandwidth (31%). One of the least common was cost reduction (26%). 

We all know that internet connectivity is vastly more affordable than managed WAN services, but clearly cost is not a motivator here. Instead, these organizations have recognized that internet connectivity is ideal for accessing the cloud. Those organizations that adopt internet as a way to get better performance and higher bandwidth are probably dealing with remote sites where the best available managed WAN service is an outdated T1 line.

However, while many enterprises are replacing managed WAN services with internet connectivity, few if any are completely abandoning MPLS and traditional WAN connections. Instead, they are diversifying. On average, enterprises are replacing managed WAN services with internet at 45% of their remote sites.

Applications drive preferences

Much of this dynamic is driven by the types of applications that flow in an out of a company’s remote sites. There are certain applications that enterprises prefer to forward over managed connections like MPLS and there are other applications that they prefer to forward over the public internet.

For instance, EMA’s research has identified five classes of applications that enterprises strongly prefer to forward over managed WAN connections. First and foremost, enterprises strongly prefer to forward big data collection, backup, and analysis traffic over managed WAN links. The other four application types that are typically forwarded over managed WAN connections are storage backup and restore traffic, in-house developed applications, enterprise resource planning (ERP) applications, and external cloud applications such SaaS and IaaS.  

Secure, web-based applications (HTTPS) represent the one application class that enterprises strongly prefer to forward over the public internet.

When you consider the bandwidth consumption rates of these various application classes, it becomes quite clear that we are headed toward a hybrid WAN era. EMA asked enterprises to identify the applications that consume the most bandwidth on their WANs. Big data applications (30%) and storage backups/restores (28%) emerged as the top two. But secure web-based applications (24%) – think HTTPS -- were just behind them on the list of bandwidth hogs.



This suggests that network infrastructure teams will make network connectivity decisions based on the classes of applications that are consumed at remote sites. For instance, a remote sales office will possibly generate a tremendous amount of traffic to  This site might be best served by a broadband connection.

On the other hand, a remote research and development office might be filled with engineers who create massive amounts of data that must be replicated and backed up. As a result, this site would require an MPLS connection that can support a storage backup and restore application.

SD-WAN enables hybrid WAN

Moreover, some enterprises will have remote sites that generate a diverse set of application traffic that has varying connectivity requirements. In those sites, a network architect will need technology that can forward some applications over MPLS and other application over the internet. This is actually a major driver of software-defined WAN (SD-WAN) technology, which is widely recognized for its ability to enable hybrid WAN connectivity, with network path selection based on application class.

Thus, if you are a network architect who must provide connectivity to a diverse range of remote sites, you will want to take a hybrid approach to your WAN. SD-WAN will help you enable that architecture. And if you follow what’s happening in the industry, you will see that network service providers have anticipated this. Service providers of all stripes and colors are launching managed SD-WAN services, from stalwart leaders in the managed WAN connectivity game like Masergy, Verizon, AT&T, and CenturyLink, to internet service providers like Earthlink.

All of this is good news for network infrastructure teams. They now have a variety of technologies and services available to them that can enable a WAN that is designed to meet the specific needs of a business.

About the Author(s)

Shamus McGillicuddy, VP of Research, Network Management, at Enterprise Management Associates (EMA)

Shamus McGillicuddy is a VP of Research, Network Management, atEnterprise Management Associates (EMA). Heleads the network management practice at EMA. His practice focuses on all aspects of managing enterprise networks, including network automation, AIOps-driven network operations, multi-cloud networking, and WAN transformation. Prior to joining EMA, Shamus worked as a technology journalist for nearly a decade. He served as the news director for TechTarget's networking publications. He led the news team's coverage of all networking topics, from the infrastructure layer to the management layer. He has published hundreds of articles about the technology and competitive positioning of networking products and vendors. He was a founding editor of TechTarget's website, a leading resource for technical information and news on the software-defined networking industry.

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