Will SDN replace MPLS? Not so fast

Vickie Lonker, Vice President of Network and Security Management, Verizon
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Vickie Lonker, Vice President of Network and Security Management, Verizon

Vickie Lonker, Vice President of Network and Security Management, Verizon

Enterprises are transforming their networks to leverage the capabilities of SDN (software-defined networks) and new technology advancements such as IoT (Internet of Things) and AI (artificial intelligence). The transformation has been used by some to create a false narrative that has fostered the perception that MPLS (multiprotocol label switching) is not required and will go away, but – the reality is quite different.

SDN is an approach to networking that introduces new levels of scalability and flexibility into network management by separating the routing controls from data forwarding tasks. SDN, along with virtualization and automation, promise to significantly improve business processes with more flexible, dynamic, application-aware network resources with centralized controls.

SDN and other networking techniques, are transforming how networks are architected and operate, but they do not actually replace the functionality that MPLS provides. It is true that SDN has helped provide opportunities to augment network architectures with lower-cost broadband and public Internet connections to facilitate hybrid networking. However, SDN does not actually replace the need for higher-quality MPLS connections for critical applications as some Over the Top (OTP) 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.

  SDN is about to transform the way networks are managed, bringing much-needed flexibility and scalability to enterprises to dial services up and down as needed   

Evolving traffic patterns

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 are starting to go live, data volumes are set to become even more massive.

 Currently, 2.5 exabytes of data are generated daily, and Cisco estimates data is growing at a 24 percent yearly clip through 2021. Combined, all of the recent and ongoing technology developments—cloud, streaming, IoT, mobility, etcetera—have 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 centers.

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, OTP network providers provide 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.

Smart traffic balancing

To get the most out of their SDN investments, enterprises should select a provider that offers 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 prioritize traffic based on the applications they use, both at the point of entry and exit from the network. Intelligent networks prioritize 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 rather by working with a provider that offers private MPLS connections and monitors those connections around the clock to maintain performance, scalability and security.

MPLS security

An MPLS provider, that owns the underlying network, delivers strong security because of how the network is designed. Through private connections, the provider has the ability to separate IP addresses from routers and hide the internal structure of the core network from the outside. OTP vendors cannot do this.

In addition, MPLS providers should be able to deliver additional controls customized to an organization’s specific needs. Customized controls can typically support an organization’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.

Best of both worlds

SDN is about to transform the way networks are managed, bringing much-needed flexibility and scalability to enterprises to dial services up and down as needed. But rather than displace MPLS networks, in many cases SDN will require MPLS for security and traffic management.

Enterprises looking to modernize their network with SDN will get the best results by finding a provider delivering the best of both worlds—SDN controls combined with MPLS capabilities.

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