Will SDN replace MPLS? Not so fast

This is a guest blog post by Tony Judd, MD UKI and Benelux at Verizon

With the popularity of new technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI), the Internet of Things (IoT)  and software-defined networking (SDN), impacting almost every aspect  of modern business, organisations are having to transform their networks in order to take advantage of these technology  developments. However, this change is being used by some to falsely prophesise the end of multiprotocol label switching (MPLS), yet this couldn’t be further from the truth.

Although SDN and other networking techniques are transforming how networks are architected and operate, they do not actually replace the functionality that MPLS provides. It is true that SDN has helped drive opportunities to augment network architectures with lower-cost broadband and public internet connections to enable hybrid networking. However, SDN does not actually replace the need for higher-quality MPLS connections for critical applications as some over-the-top (OTTP) network providers might have you believe. Both technologies will coexist and, in fact, SDN will depend on MPLS for traffic management and security—the attributes that made MPLS networks reliable and desirable in the first place.

Networking superhighways

Recent technology advances such as media streaming, social media and mobility have generated massive amounts of data that flow into networks from a myriad of devices. Now as IoT, AI and edge computing environments start to go live, data volumes will become even astronomical. Currently, 2.5 exabytes of data are generated daily, and Cisco estimates that data volume is growing at an annual rate of 24% through 2021.

Combined, all of the recent and ongoing technology developments – cloud  streaming, IoT, mobility – changed how enterprises consume applications and, as a result, also changed bandwidth demands and (WAN) traffic patterns. As such, enterprises face serious challenges related to scalability, security and network performance. Network traffic is unpredictable and much of it flows from multiple sources dispersed throughout private and public cloud infrastructures as well as data centres.

Scalability limitations and security concerns are more pronounced for enterprises that use multiple vendors to run their networks. Like the reliability of the network itself, security policies and solutions vary from vendor to vendor. For instance, OTTP service providers deliver security at the application layer because they don’t own the underlying network, so the data they handle can become more vulnerable when crossing network boundaries. That’s because elements of the underlying networks are managed by multiple service providers that don’t always communicate or collaborate with each other. In contrast, a provider that owns the underlying network infrastructure can design a secure network to meet enterprise needs.

Easing traffic congestion

To get the most out of their SDN investments, enterprises should use MPLS for critical applications and locations and simply supplement with broadband for less critical traffic. MPLS is designed with the built-in security and scalability that modern businesses demand. Network providers that own the underlying network can deliver strong protection against increasingly common types of cyber-attacks – DDoS (distributed denial of service), ransomware and zero-day threats.

Today’s enterprises also need smart networks that prioritise traffic based on the applications they use, both at the point of entry and exit from the network. Intelligent networks prioritise each application and allocate the proper amount of bandwidth. For instance, the network distinguishes between audio and video applications that require higher priority from casual internet browsing.

This refined approach to traffic balancing isn’t available through public internet connections, but there are providers that offer private MPLS connections and monitor those connections around the clock to maintain performance, scalability and security.

Advanced security through MPLS

A further benefit of using MPLS is that it can help to deliver strong security through the design of the network. Through private connections, MPLS can be used to separate IP addresses from routers and hide the internal structure of the core network from the outside.

In addition, MPLS can be used to put in place additional controls customised to an organisation’s specific needs. These controls can typically support an organisation’s compliance with industry-specific regulations or standards such as HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act) for healthcare and PCI DSS (Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard) for retailers and other businesses that process credit card information.

MPLS and SDN: working together

Without a doubt SDN is changing how networks are managed, driving increased flexibility and scalability to enterprises, allowing them to dial services up and down as required. However, SDN will not mean the end of MPLS, instead SDN will require MPLS to increase security and manage traffic in an effective manner. With this in mind, businesses who want to put in place the latest and greatest digital capabilities should adopt a network strategy that can deliver the best of both worlds; SDN controls combined with MPLS capabilities.

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