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As businesses move to SaaS applications and distributed cloud services, IT leaders are rapidly replacing inflexible legacy technologies like MPLS with new SD-WAN (Software Defined Wide Area Network) solutions.
9 min read

What is MPLS? link link

MPLS stands for Multiprotocol Label Switching. It is a data-carrying networking technique used in high-performance telecommunications networks that directs traffic flow across the network.

MPLS stands for Multiprotocol Label Switching. It is a data-carrying networking technique used in high-performance telecommunications networks that directs traffic flow across the network. MPLS works by attaching labels to packets that contain information based on predefined paths created by the MPLS network administrator. MPLS was designed to provide faster routing than traditional IP-based routing and support carrying multiple protocols.

The history of MPLS dates back to the 1990s when service providers were building complex ATM and Frame Relay networks that used different access technologies. MPLS was designed to standardize and simplify integration across multiple services, and MPLS networks have been deployed globally by enterprises to connect remote offices and data centers since MPLS provides predictable traffic routing, quality of service management, and reliability. However, even as reliance on cloud services increases, MPLS networks lack the scalability and agility that emerging SD-WAN platforms can provide.


How does MPLS work? link link

MPLS increases routing speed and reliability by establishing fixed paths for packets to traverse the core network.

How MPLS networks work:

  • MPLS labels packets with identifiers that specify the forwarding path through the network
  • Routers make forwarding decisions based solely on the label, increasing performance
  • Labels get attached when packets enter the MPLS network and removed at the exit
  • MPLS establishes Label Switched Paths (LSPs) which are predetermined virtual circuits
  • Traffic engineering manages bandwidth utilization over LSPs

MPLS increases routing speed and reliability by establishing fixed paths for packets to traverse the core network. When connections enter an MPLS network, edge routers analyze IP headers and assign a label containing the next hop. Intermediate MPLS routers swap this label for a new one based on a simple table lookup rather than deep packet inspection. Labels get stripped when exiting the MPLS cloud. This allows packets on established Label Switched Paths to bypass complex routing algorithms. Network administrators carefully engineer LSPs and fine-tune bandwidth allocation over links. MPLS also natively supports VPN services for security and traffic isolation. The dedicated infrastructure enables strong SLAs for critical traffic like VoIP, but lacks agility. MPLS networks are being replaced by SD-WAN solutions better suited for cloud connectivity.


MPLS advantages

MPLS networks have historically provided significant advantages for enterprise WAN connectivity including:

  • Predictable performance through traffic engineering
  • Ability to optimize routing for speed and reliability
  • Quality of service and priority mechanisms
  • Support for service level agreements (SLAs)
  • Native security and traffic isolation capabilities
  • Traffic management and monitoring capabilities
  • Reliability with redundant links and hardware
  • Scalability across global networks
  • Guaranteed bandwidth utilization over dedicated circuits
  • Converged voice, data, and video services

In the past, these capabilities made MPLS an ideal choice connecting key sites across the enterprise. MPLS offers tight control over routing and traffic which enables strict SLAs. However, increasing public cloud usage and hybrid network requirements are exposing drawbacks of MPLS in flexibility, automation, and cost. This has accelerated adoption of SD-WAN as the next generation enterprise WAN architecture.


MPLS disadvantages

Though MPLS has been a core enterprise WAN technology for years, it has some distinct disadvantages in today’s cloud-first world including:

  • Expensive – MPLS circuits have high fixed costs and require proprietary hardware
  • Limited agility and scalability due to static configurations
  • Lack of integration and optimization for internet and SaaS traffic
  • Limited redundancy options and resiliency capabilities
  • Introduces vendor lock-in scenarios limiting architectural options
  • No native load balancing across multiple links
  • Weak support for mobile and temporary sites due to hardware dependence
  • Cannot leverage lower-cost public broadband links effectively
  • Lacks deep application visibility of modern traffic

While MPLS offers reliability and performance guarantees, the technology is rigid concerning change management and adapting to new network requirements. As enterprises embrace SaaS apps, IaaS platforms, and hybrid cloud connectivity; MPLS WANs impede architectures rather than enable digital transformation. This has fueled strong interest in SD-WAN solutions.


How does SD-WAN differ from MPLS? link link

SD-WAN (Software-Defined Wide Area Networking) represents a shift from relying on costly, inflexible MPLS circuits to an intelligent software overlay that can leverage any transport - including broadband internet and LTE.

SD-WAN (Software-Defined Wide Area Networking) represents a shift from relying on costly, inflexible MPLS circuits to an intelligent software overlay that can leverage any transport – including broadband internet and LTE. Rather than backhauling traffic via MPLS to centralized hubs before reaching branch internet breakouts, SD-WAN routes traffic dynamically based on context like user, device, application, and network conditions. This allows organizations to transition from legacy MPLS and its fixed topology to an agile, cloud-centric WAN architecture.

SD-WAN platforms bring automation, visibility, and centralized orchestration across network endpoints. Unlike MPLS, SD-WAN can dynamically aggregate multiple links for increased bandwidth and resiliency. Optimized traffic steering and security policies are implemented in the cloud versus needing manual configuration. SD-WAN solutions simplify operations and lower costs by enabling direct internet access from branches instead of hairpinning traffic through regional hubs.

The first step in migrating from MPLS is deploying SD-WAN gateways across branches to leverage cheap broadband links. Traffic is selectively routed via the old MPLS core and the new SD-WAN fabric based on priority until MPLS circuits can be phased out over 12-24 months. This staged approach maintains critical applications on legacy networks while evaluating SD-WAN capabilities.

Netskope offers a leading SD-WAN solution that helps enterprises adopt a cloud-first networking strategy. The Netskope SD-WAN platform integrates advanced traffic steering capabilities with industry-leading security using the unique NewEdge network. This allows customers to securely and reliably access critical cloud services and private applications over any combination of transport mechanisms.

Solution: Netskope Borderless SD-WAN
Security Defined: What is SD-WAN?


Can SD-WAN Replace MPLS?

Yes, SD-WAN can replace MPLS as the primary enterprise WAN architecture. SD-WAN platforms offer a modern software-defined approach to connect users to applications with agility, performance, visibility and cost savings.

A key driver for SD-WAN is facilitating cloud adoption. Unlike rigid MPLS networks, SD-WANs efficiently route traffic to IaaS and SaaS platforms based on real-time conditions. This includes steering traffic between cheaper broadband links and legacy networks. SD-WAN also centralizes management and monitoring with much greater visibility into apps, users, and behavior analytics.

Additionally, SD-WAN offers advanced security inheriting web gateway, firewall, and zero-trust capabilities. SD-WAN provides an integrated Secure Access Service Edge to enforce compliance and safeguard data. This reduces reliance on physical DMZ appliances. SD-WAN platforms have native encryption, microsegmentation and identity-based access controls.

The automation, agility, and cloud connectivity of SD-WAN makes it a clear strategic replacement for MPLS across modern enterprise networks. MPLS itself delivers strong fundamentals but lacks the flexibility to enable digital innovation.


Frequently Asked Questions link link

What’s the difference between a VPN and MPLS?

The main difference between a VPN (Virtual Private Network) and an MPLS (Multiprotocol Label Switching) network comes down to how they achieve network segmentation and access control:

A VPN provides connectivity over a shared network, like the public internet, by establishing an encrypted tunnel between endpoints. This allows remote users or branch offices to access private corporate resources. VPNs leverage identity and passwords for access control and traffic encryption for data security when traversing untrusted networks.

In contrast, MPLS is a mechanism to forward traffic on dedicated, private telecom circuits installed between data centers and office sites. MPLS separates traffic using labels rather than encryption, optimizing transport across the core MPLS network. It then implements access controls at the network edge much like VLANs segment a local area network. MPLS also prioritizes certain applications over others.

In essence – VPNs are software-defined overlays that maximize security, while MPLS utilizes physical isolation and traffic engineering. VPNs suit remote access while MPLS excels at inter-office connectivity. However, growing SD-WAN adoption is replacing MPLS SITE-to-SITE connectivity with dynamic policy enforcement. MPLS lacks agility while VPNs and SD-WAN suit the cloud era.

Read: Replace VPNs with ZTNA Next


Is MPLS still used?

Yes, MPLS is still widely used today for enterprise networking particularly connecting data centers and office sites. Though other technologies like SD-WAN are quickly emerging, many major enterprise and carrier networks still rely extensively on legacy MPLS architecture. There are a few key reasons:

Firstly, huge investments have been made over decades building sophisticated global MPLS networks. Ripping and replacing this infrastructure is extremely complex and costly. While MPLS may seem outdated, it delivers reliable and consistent performance between fixed end points. MPLS Quality of Service, Service Level Agreements, and traffic management capabilities enable strong reliability and uptime between locations.

Secondly, MPLS offers natively integrated security mechanisms for segmenting and isolating traffic between business sites. This remains a critical capability for many financial, healthcare and government agencies with strict compliance controls. MPLS hardware also integrates well with existing security stacks.

Finally, the technology is deeply entrenched across networks, systems monitoring, and processes. Rearchitecting requires overcoming massive inertia. Weaning from MPLS requires re-training staff across IT teams as well.

So for the above reasons major commitments to MPLS persist, even as SD-WAN and SASE solutions gain momentum as the next generation enterprise WAN connectivity approach. It will take years for MPLS to fade away, especially in regulated sectors.


What is MPLS cloud?

An MPLS cloud refers to the core network infrastructure that routes traffic between endpoints using Multiprotocol Label Switching (MPLS) technology. The MPLS cloud sits between customer edge routers at different locations. It provides private, high capacity transport across metro, regional or global distances.

Inside an MPLS cloud, routers don’t use typical IP routing. Instead they assign labels to ingress traffic from customer premises. Packets are then forwarded based solely on these labels following predetermined label-switched paths (LSPs). Labels get removed when exiting the cloud. This allows accelerating routing using simple table lookups rather than lengthy IP analysis.

The MPLS cloud forms the backbone connecting enterprise offices, data centers, call centers and other sites. It often overlays higher-level protocols like VPLS or VPWS to deliver additional services. Carriers build their IP/MPLS backbone to offer connectivity and reliability guarantees through SLAs to enterprises. MPLS centralizes control but it lacks agility.

While MPLS clouds enable large-scale private networking and reliability between sites, alternatives like software-defined WAN overlay services can achieve similar connectivity over cheaper public broadband links. As enterprises adopt SD-WAN, the dedicated MPLS cloud is being replaced by dynamic policy-based overlays.


What is the difference between VPLS and MPLS?

The main difference between VPLS (Virtual Private LAN Service) and MPLS (Multiprotocol Label Switching) is that VPLS is a Layer 2 VPN service delivered over an MPLS network.

MPLS provides efficient packet transport and traffic engineering across Wide Area Networks. It works by establishing Label Switched Paths across the service provider core. However, MPLS only handles Layer 3 connectivity out of the box.

VPLS brings Layer 2 semantics on top of MPLS transport to offer multipoint Ethernet bridging. This creates a unified broadcast domain connecting geographically dispersed sites. VPLS replicates frames across MPLS paths to appear like a traditional switched LAN.

Essentially, VPLS gives enterprises a software-defined Layer 2 overlay for connecting data centers, offices and multi-tenant sites across metro regions. The MPLS core provides the reliable underlay for pseudowire transport between VPLS network edge devices.

While both are fading against SD-WAN solutions, the difference remains – MPLS enables private IP routing across WAN links while VPLS specifically delivers an extended Layer 2 segment over those same MPLS carrier networks. They build on each other.


What is MPLS segment routing?

MPLS Segment Routing is an emerging MPLS extension for traffic engineering that aims to improve routing scalability, flexibility and programmability.

With traditional MPLS, Label Switched Paths are configured explicitly on every router in the end-to-end path across the network. This becomes complex to operate at scale. Segment routing takes a source-routing approach – sending packets with a stack of labels based on the desired path.

Each label corresponds to a network segment, which could be a router interface or logical grouping. Routers process the next label in the stack to identify the appropriate path across segments towards the destination. This approach centralizes path decisions rather than distributing full topology awareness.

Segment routing vastly expands the number of eligible paths, allowing route optimization on-demand. It also supports binding policies and telemetry data to route computation for smarter traffic steering. Overall, segment routing aims to deliver agility, automation and simplified management to MPLS infrastructure – which lacks intrinsic intelligence. But it remains constrained alongside SD-WAN solutions.


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