Why enterprises are holding on to legacy MPLS links in an age of Software-Defined WAN

We all had that one relationship that lasted just a few months longer than we wanted (years in some cases).  As much as you wanted to move on, knowing there was a better fit for you in the universe, you stayed.  The relationship was convenient. You were loyal. Sure, it caused some emotional scarring but it seemed ‘worth it’ at the time.  You may not have been in love but you were … comfortable. 

But then one day you go on a date with another couple and they are having the time of their lives. Laughing. Hugging. Finishing each other’s sentences. You think to yourself, “Is that how it’s supposed to be?  What else am I missing out on?”

This is the story with networking’s relationship with the tried and trusted friend … MPLS. You thought you would be together forever, but things change. Software-Defined WAN exploded on the scene some 5-10 years ago and has seemingly turned the networking world upside down. Every day you read about the death of MPLS and the benefits of SD-WAN. Everyone is doing it … why not me? 

First off, don’t sweat it. You’re not alone.
Breaking Up is Hard to Do

Survey results from Apcela’s Enterprise Network Survey show that many MPLS users are moving slowly to SD-WAN, and the two often overlap.

1. According to Apcela’s own survey about the State of Enterprise WAN from early 2019, “44% of SD-WAN users still use MPLS.” And, the majority of MPLS users in the process of moving towards an SD-WAN deployment are still in the technology research phase. Sound familiar?

2. Look at it this way – in 2013, Gartner published “Is MPLS Dead?”1 It is now 6 years later, and it looks like the ex you thought you’d never see again after high school has stuck around. According to Gartner’s 2019 Market Guide for Managed SD-WAN Services “By YE22, 40% of global enterprise SD-WAN initiatives will source some or all of their underlying WAN transport separately from their managed SD-WAN services, up from 24% in 2017.”2 So yes, to us this says SD-WAN is taking over, but it is STILL not the majority choice. Yet.

So why is breaking up so freaking hard?

1. You’ve been together soooo long. 20 years is a lot in the lifetime of technology. Smart phones didn’t even exist when MPLS was first deployed in 1999!

2. You know what to expect – a packet enters the network, it is intelligently labeled, routers move it accordingly, it goes where you need to go. Routines are easy. 

3. Change seems hard – it was hard enough to convince your friends and family (read: coworkers and executives) that you needed MPLS. Now you have to go through that process all over again. Rehiring services, buying hardware, engineering solutions…it’s a long list. 

4. You’ve invested so much – why throw it away? MPLS is expensive, and all that money you put into laying the groundwork (literally and figuratively) isn’t coming back. Most experts agree that switching to SD-WAN will save you money in the long run – but can you wait that long?

Start small….give each other some breathing room

1. Start by thinking of quantities you want in your partner (and by this, we mean your networking architecture) – what do you care most about? Speed? Cost? Ease of use?

2. Start to distance yourself — to rely on MPLS less, start routing some traffic with SD-WAN

3. Locate problem areas — Map your apps and identify, geographically, 1 or 2 locations that makes sense. These tend to be small, remote sites that use a lot of cloud applications. 

4. Finally, if you’re ready to take the step – date other people*—Get a few SD-WAN instances in one or two branch services to test your chemistry. Start with non-critical site locations so you don’t disrupt your ongoing service.

We think the experts agree. In “4 Keys to Building WANs in the Digital Era,” Gartner recommends:

  • “Maintain MPLS at the data center and critical site locations (with critical applications), but reduce the bandwidth to match the traffic bound for the data center.
  • Retain MPLS in geographic locations with poor or emerging infrastructures.
  • In less mission-critical branch locations, replace MPLS with reliable and scalable internet connectivity with redundant access types (such as DIA with broadband or, for small sites, diverse broadband connectivity).”3
Trust us, it’s worth it, and you’ll kick yourself for not doing it sooner
  • Benefits of SDWAN…..
    • Better for cloud
    • Increased bandwidth
    • Increased performance (especially at small, remote sites)
    • Increased uptime
    • No longer imprisoned by ISP
    • Better if not running real-time apps over the WAN
      • Note: MPLS might still trump SD-WAN for video, voice, remote, etc. Since SD-WAN still uses public internet to connect your sites, it can’t guarantee low levels of packet loss, latency, and jitter. 

So, have we convinced you that you deserve the relationship of your dreams? It won’t be easy, but you don’t need to go cold turkey on your ex to start making changes to improve your performance. Luckily, we are happy to step in as your personal relationship counselor and life coach.** Watch out for our upcoming Webinar and eBook to learn more about what you should do in this real-life “MPLS vs. SD-WAN” version of television’s “The Bachelorette.” 

*Disclaimer: Apcela is an expert in network IT – not human relationships.

**Again – not for real relationships. It’s a metaphor, people. 

Breaking Up is Hard to Do
To learn more about the differences between MPLS and SDWAN, and get to know the right network architecture for you, watch our Apcela Talks webinar “MPLS in the Age of Software-Defined WAN”.


1) Gartner, Is MPLS Dead?, Andrew Lerner, Neil Rickard, Refreshed 5 November 2014, Published 17 June 2013

2) Gartner, Market Guide for Managed SD-WAN services, Ted Corbett, Neil Rickard, Lisa Pierce, 15 May 2019. Subscribers may access the report here: https://www.gartner.com/en/documents/3913605/market-guide-for-managed-sd-wan-services

3) Gartner, 4 Keys to Building WANs in the Digital Era, Jonathan Forest, 13 February 2019. Subscribers may access the report here: https://www.gartner.com/en/documents/3901027/4-keys-to-building-wans-in-the-digital-era

Network World, “Is SD-WAN Better than MPLS?” Mike C. Smith, 21 September 2017.

Read more about Apcela’s offerings for SD-WAN and Managed Services.

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