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Enterprises are shifting to the cloud because it enables them to deliver on their digital transformation goals. To support a rapidly growing mobile workforce and offer customers a better experience, enterprises are adopting SD-WAN over MPLS networks.

Both provide high-performance connectivity for private or hybrid clouds between offices, data centers, and remote sites. However, with SD-WAN solutions that leverage internet bandwidth and take advantage of today’s more cost-effective connections, enterprises now get the best of both worlds: cheaper bandwidth with more reliability.

With the internet as the backbone instead of costly dedicated lines, businesses can reduce costs while maintaining fast speeds and quality service.

Also see: Best Network Virtualization Software & Products 

What is MPLS?

MPLS (Multi-Protocol Label Switching) is a data-carrying technique for high-performance networks that directs data from one network node to the next based on short path labels rather than long network addresses, avoiding complex lookups in a routing table. MPLS can encapsulate packets of various data types, including voice and video communications. 

It’s a hardware-based networking technology that uses labels to determine the best route for data traffic. 

Unlike most SD-WAN solutions, which rely on software running on servers in the cloud, MPLS employs specialized routers and switches programmed with predefined forwarding tables called label switching tables. These tables define how data should be routed through a given network over specified links.

How does MPLS work?

MPLS works by establishing label switched paths (LSPs) between devices. LSPs are label-switched paths that allow packets to be forwarded based on a short label instead of a long network address. This makes routing more efficient and allows for quality of service (QoS) options, which are important for real-time applications like VoIP

The MPLS is designed to increase speed and reduce memory overhead in large networks with multiple branches. It does this by labeling packets of data with short labels that identify the desired path through the network.  

For example, when a packet enters an MPLS network, it will have an outer label identifying the switch where it came from, and an inner label identifying the next switch along its route. By using these predetermined labels instead of relying on the source and destination addresses, MPLS networks can achieve much faster switching times than traditional routing schemes. 

An MPLS network may have several different routes available for each connection. Without predefined labels, a router must examine every possible combination to determine which is best suited for a particular situation. With MPLS, however, every router knows exactly what action to take because it follows well-defined rules laid out in advance by engineers.

Also see: 7 Enterprise Networking Challenges 

What is SD-WAN?

SD-WAN is a software-defined wide area network. It is an internet connection between two points that uses a software layer to facilitate communication between the two points.

The software-defined aspect of SD-WAN makes it flexible to be used with different networks, including Ethernet, DSL, satellite, WiMAX, or cable. It is also much more scalable than traditional WANs because it does not require specialized hardware like an optical network terminal (ONT) for MPLS; rather, this role can be played by any compatible device like a laptop computer. 

How does SD-WAN work?

SD-WAN enables you to create a direct connection between sites without needing a physical VPN. Instead, the technology uses a software-defined network to send data packets over the Internet. This allows you to create multiple virtual circuits, each with bandwidth and priority, giving you more control over your network traffic. 

SD-WAN is more flexible than MPLS, so you can easily add or remove sites from your network without reconfiguring your entire infrastructure. And it’s easier to troubleshoot because it’s all happening through a single interface rather than relying on separate connections. 

Also see: Best Network Management Solutions 

MPLS vs. SD-WAN: How are they different?

MPLS and SD-WAN are both methods to route traffic across a network. However, MPLS is a hardware-based solution that uses labels to direct traffic, while SD-WAN is a software-based solution that can use multiple transport methods.

MPLS vs. SD-WAN: Delivering services

MPLS uses hardware, such as routers and switches, to create a private network. On the other hand, SD-WAN uses software to create a virtual private network (VPN). As a result, both MPLS and SD-WAN can be used to connect sites that are geographically dispersed. 

The primary difference is how they deliver services: an MPLS system relies heavily on hardware, while SD-WAN uses software. Unfortunately, hardware can quickly become outdated because it doesn’t have an unlimited lifespan, as software does. 

While hardware becomes outdated, software will always stay current with updates or patches. With SD-WAN, there is also greater scalability than MPLS, meaning organizations don’t need to worry about scaling when using SD-WAN solutions.

Large enterprises typically use MPLS because it offers more control and security. However, businesses of all sizes can use SD-WAN because it is less expensive and easier to manage. 

Also see: Top Enterprise Networking Companies

MPLS vs. SD-WAN: Type of network

MPLS and SD-WAN are used to connect devices on a network but differ in how they route traffic (MPLS uses a dedicated hardline while SD-WAN uses a virtual network). MPLS uses a technique called label switching. Labels tell the router which path the data should take through the network, using tables that contain different routes. 

Data packets with specific labels can only be routed along certain paths, so if one path is down, data can still be sent out via another available route. The label swapping also allows for automatic rerouting around any errors or downtime in the system. 

In contrast, SD-WAN uses a virtual WAN architecture to provide connectivity. SD-WAN is provisioned via software that manages Internet connections from multiple vendors. With SD-WAN, scalability comes at no extra cost because it’s built into its architecture and doesn’t require new equipment when expanding an installation. 

MPLS vs. SD-WAN: Data

MPLS is a high-speed forwarding mechanism for data traffic. It was designed to provide better performance than traditional IP routing. MPLS provides higher speed and lower data loss but at a higher price. 

In contrast, SD-WANs are cheaper, but they could potentially become congested and can suffer from packet loss if the network connections between WAN points aren’t consistent. However, if done right, an SD-WAN could perform just as well as MPLS while costing less. 

Here’s how it works: A company sets up its MPLS so that all packets flow through their connection provider’s routers before being forwarded onto their destination networks. 

This setup will result in minimal data loss because of congestion or packet transmission failure when implemented correctly. An SD-WAN does not use predefined routes, instead relying on Quality of Service measurements to keep latency down and packets moving smoothly. 

In conclusion, MPLS is best suited for high speeds with low packet loss rates, while SD-WANs offer faster Internet access and greater mobility options at a more affordable cost.

Also see: Best IoT Platforms for Device Management

MPLS vs. SD-WAN: Security

MPLS and SD-WAN offer security features that protect your data as it travels across the network. However, there are some key differences between the two. MPLS is a private network partitioned from the public Internet and doesn’t require encryption. 

However, SD-WAN provides more control over what paths traffic takes by allowing you to define rules on how data should be routed from point A to point B based on latency, and availability, connecting all data through a secure tunnel that employs strong encryption. SD-WAN encrypts all of its traffic to maintain a secure connection. As a result, it offers better visibility, availability, enhanced performance, reliability, and scalability.

MPLS vs. SD-WAN: Performance 

MPLS networks have been designed to prioritize performance from the ground up. By dedicating different ‘labels’ to different types of traffic, an MPLS network can ensure that time-sensitive data (like VoIP calls) are always given priority. This results in a consistent, high-quality experience for users. 

However, this is also one of the reasons why MPLS is expensive to set up; it needs specialized equipment and skilled technicians who know how to configure it. 

On the other hand, SD-WANs function primarily as overlays on top of existing networks like DSL or cable internet, which means they don’t need any special hardware or infrastructure upgrades. 

The tradeoff here is that these SD-WANs do not offer guaranteed performance levels because they depend on the type and quality of internet connection available at any given moment. However, SD-WAN offers benefits over MPLS when trying to make your branch offices more resilient and less reliant on costly private lines.

Also see: Understanding the Zero Trust Approach to Network Security

Aminu Abdullahi
Aminu Abdullahi
Aminu Abdullahi is an experienced B2B technology and finance writer and award-winning public speaker. He is the co-author of the e-book, The Ultimate Creativity Playbook, and has written for various publications, including eWEEK, Enterprise Networking Planet, Tech Republic, eSecurity Planet, CIO Insight, Enterprise Storage Forum, IT Business Edge, Webopedia, Software Pundit, and Geekflare.

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