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SD-WAN: MPLS or Internet

Global telecoms providers are clamoring to get a chunk of the global Software-Defined Wide Area Network (SD-WAN) market -- and of course, they should be. These oligopolies have made a fortune over the past decade supplying MPLS to enterprises, with WAN costs barely budging as the price of Internet connectivity fell overall. There's a good reason for this. These service providers knew that MPLS was the gold standard of reliability and charged their customers accordingly.

Now with the growth of SD-WAN threatening to cannibalize the MPLS market, telecoms vendors are in an interesting spot. SD-WAN technologies help global companies boost their business applications' performance and transform the way they deliver their services to customers. That's because these technologies empower CIOs and network managers to configure their network traffic and performance options for their organization's individual requirements, all from a central point.

While companies have traditionally used many different types of WAN connectivity -- from MPLS and broadband to 4G and public Wi-Fi -- to expand and grow, depending on the traffic and sensitivity of the data being transmitted, all these options present particular challenges like poor branch application performance, reliability issues, and, in the case of MPLS, rising network maintenance costs. The new generation of SD-WAN products not only leverage companies' existing network investments and cloud applications, but they improve local application performance visibility and boost branches' agility -- all managed dynamically from the center.

With the MPLS market expected to grow by just 4.4 percent between now and 2021, and the SD-WAN market exploding with a compound annual growth rate of nearly 70% over the same period according to IDC, it's no wonder that cable and telecoms providers are taking notice and launching SD-WAN services. Just in the past few months, no fewer than 10 cable and telecom providers, including Verizon, China Telecom, Comcast, and Sprint, have released new SD-WAN offerings.

With tens of thousands of organizations planning significant investments in SD-WAN over the next year, it makes sense to take a pause and evaluate whether a telecom or cable provider is the right SD-WAN partner. At first glance, transitioning from MPLS to SD-WAN using your existing telecom provider might seem like the least disruptive and the most fail-safe approach. Many organizations realize they're being overcharged for MPLS but are afraid to adopt SD-WAN and instead look to test this approach with their telco as a way to obtain cheaper connectivity without the risk of a full migration. And, of course, telecoms want to help businesses do that.

With MPLS, expensive, customer-owned hardware is required at the edge to connect generally to a carrier in a term contract. With SD-WAN and transport options, the model is being flipped in favor of the business consumer. Edge hardware is generally now a very low-cost commodity item with the intelligence, or orchestration, of the network being provided at a higher overlay level. This has enabled tremendous advances in application traffic delivery flexibility, transport options, bandwidth upgrade ease and speed, simplification of management, and so on. And when consumed as a service this takes the burden off the customer and provides all the benefits of cost savings, not to mention predictability, agility, performance, and security.

There are potential risks associated with deploying "one size fits all" product deals from these global carriers. For example, deploying SD-WAN with a carrier restricts the circuits you can use. Also, different companies have different goals with their SD-WAN deployments. One company might be looking for an SD-WAN vendor that provides them with optimization and efficiency out of the box, while another might be focused solely on better voice and video solutions. Many carriers have signed on with a single vendor and thus their capabilities are based on what that individual vendor's product is designed to do and might not suit your specific needs.

There are also times when a carrier may be the right option. For example, if a company is looking at a rapid SD-WAN deployment, in multiple markets/areas, and the telecom has coverage in all those places at a reasonable cost, that may be the best option for that company. Choosing a telecom may be easier than dealing with multiple partners in these markets even if the CIO fears being locked in to the vendor.

At the end of the day, most SD-WAN deployments seek to achieve one of three things: better utilization of circuits, agility, and cost savings. While a legacy telecom might be the devil that you know, their innate structure does not necessarily support the underlying reason that most companies choose SD-WAN in the first place: individual choice.

Author is Marc Sollars, CTO of Teneo, Inc.