MPLS – How we got there
When we look back 30 years at how organisations deployed and utilised WAN technologies to connect offices and data centres together, we had fixed point-to-point leased lines, offering low-speed connectivity in the realms of 128kbps to 2Mbs and linked together using dedicated hardware routers from one or two large networking vendors. Then, around the 90s, Frame Relay was introduced offering the first indication of a cloud-based architecture, delivering compelling cost savings and reducing complexity by requiring less hardware and removing the need to purchase and manage individual links between each of the locations. Within five years, most enterprises had migrated to Frame Relay and to this day it has been the fastest uptake of any WAN service in history – including that of the Internet. However, while flexible and cost-effective, the ability to scale bandwidth and guarantee application service was difficult, and organisations had to endure long deployment lead times.
Skipping a few alternative WAN technologies that never achieved any form of enterprise market share, we ended up with MPLS (Multiprotocol Label Switching) as the successor to Frame Relay and still the WAN technology of choice for many organisations today. From an enterprise’s point of view the technical differences between the two technologies are not substantial. However, what MPLS promised was the enablement of connectionless any-site connectivity, ideal for limiting network latency between the user and application by simplifying the path that it took, plus delivering a level of quality and guarantee backed by a Telco’s backbone SLA’s for live voice and video calls through the use of Quality of Service (QoS).
As we look forward into 2020, the enterprise infrastructure has changed considerably with organisations everywhere undertaking digital transformation projects to change the way they do business. Cloud and mobile are probably two of the most important areas that businesses have turned to over the past decade, none more so than in the last six months, driven by the global pandemic and the need to become more of a digital business that is also digitally resilient to any situation.
MPLS – and the demands of digital business today
Digital business is about speed, faster product to market or swifter responsiveness to changing market conditions. Equally, it is about making sure that quality and reliability, not to mention the security aspects, are in place to prevent disruption that can hugely impact or cripple a business.
But unlike what cloud computing has done to help deliver this, today’s networking and security have been painfully incompatible with the cloud-centric and mobile-first business of today with inefficient workarounds – such as backhauling branch office internet and cloud traffic across MPLS connections and “tromboning” network traffic to force it through a complex and latency increasing line of security devices.
The network is rigid and static. Security is heavily fragmented across multiple domains of physical locations, cloud resources, and mobile users. Together, networking and security are slowing down the business as silos erected decades ago are stretched and patched to accommodate emerging business requirements. To address the needs of the new generation of digital businesses, a cloud-native networking and security architecture, along with a connectivity solution that can be deployed and scaled instantly is surely the future of networking.
Research suggests that wireless LAN through Gigabit LTE or 5G services will become the future choice of connectivity for organisations, overtaking wired WAN like MPLS or fixed link internet. Whether this is a feasible outlook in the next two to five years or not, it is important to address the specific challenges and limitations that organisations face today with current network and security architectures. The increasing reliability, performance, flexibility, scalability, and cost-effectiveness of internet connectivity is clearly driving enterprises to deploy Internet connectivity as a trusted WAN source. However, organisations should carefully consider the locations and needs vs using a private or public based network as there are use cases that will see the use of a both as a hybrid approach. But whether a business is reviewing full replacement of MPLS or looking at Internet services in certain locations, there are still a few concerns that leave enterprise organisations hesitant.
Moving from MPLS – Addressing quality and performance concerns
It is critical for any organisation to identify and deploy a solid WAN infrastructure that can deliver on the availability and performance needs of their business. So, it is understandable that many would be concerned with the risks of unpredictable Internet connectivity that has shown to introduce high latency variation and packet loss due to poor internet peering between continents.
But using Internet connectivity is not new for many businesses as they have used it for years as affordable disaster recovery circuits, but to regularly run business-critical applications and communications across them presents many more unknowns that cost savings alone won’t resolve. Many state that Internet connectivity has in fact impaired application performance, not directly due to poor peering, but due to backbone routing distances and latency variation, which can be as much as 50% higher than that quoted by Internet providers.
Unfortunately, this will be a true outcome if the necessary due diligence of Internet providers and their networks are not undertaken. But whilst global MPLS connections have always promised 99.99% availability and less than 0.1% packet loss, guarantees of performance can still be questioned when multi-telco backbones with differing SLA’s are stitched together to deliver global connectivity. MPLS services will attract higher prices for this level of service availability, but with limiting bandwidths and lack of real-time visibility into application performance, MPLS still leaves organisations with some reservations that they are receiving exactly what they are paying for. With the convergence of several technological improvements, a new SLA-backed affordable backbone (SLAB), using tier-1 carriers overlaid with SD-WAN technology can now offer a globally secure and predictable Internet backbone with MPLS like latency for the most critical middle mile section of a WAN infrastructure. This type of connectivity can now start to shape the future, becoming the closest to delivering the same levels of performance, flexibility, control, affordability, and mobility that cloud computing aims to offer us today.