In today’s fast-paced technological environment, ensuring optimal network performance and security is paramount for businesses of all sizes. Many organizations have historically relied on MPLS (Multiprotocol Label Switching) for their networking needs. However, with the rapid evolution of digital landscapes, SD-WAN (Software-Defined Wide Area Network) is emerging as a compelling alternative. And in some sectors, the MPLS to SD-WAN migration is essential to meet the needs of modern IT environments, where organizations rely on potentially hundreds of different applications for daily operations.
This transition might seem complex or even daunting. But here, we aim to provide a comprehensive guide on this transition is shedding light on the intricacies, benefits, and considerations vital for informed decision-making.
Why Organizations are Making the Switch from MPLS to SD-WAN
Today, enterprises must continuously adapt to maintain efficiency, security, and reliability across increasingly complex networks. The transition from MPLS to SD-WAN reflects a significant shift in how organizations approach their networking needs. Here’s why the tide is turning in favor of SD-WAN.
Multiprotocol Label Switching (MPLS)
MPLS is a protocol-agnostic routing technique that speeds up and shapes traffic flows across wide area networks (WAN). Historically, MPLS has been the go-to choice for many organizations because of its reliability and ability to prioritize specific types of traffic over others.
However, the digital landscape of modern workplaces has changed significantly over the last decade, and MPLS is revealing its limitations. In short, MPLS wasn’t designed for today’s cloud-first approach, leading to increased costs and complexities when connecting to cloud services and applications.
Software-Defined Wide Area Network (SD-WAN)
SD-WAN is a modern solution to WAN challenges. It offers dynamic path selection for traffic routing, making it highly adaptive to the varying needs of applications. This is particularly crucial in an era dominated by BYOD (Bring Your Own Device), mobile workforces, and the Internet of Things (IoT).
Why SD-WAN Is a Better Alternative:
- Adaptability for Modern Workforces: With the rise of BYOD and mobile workforces, SD-WAN provides the flexibility to seamlessly adapt to these modern workplace dynamics.
- Improved Cloud Connectivity: As 80% of applications are now hosted on the cloud, SD-WAN offers better, more direct cloud access, improving efficiency.
- Interconnected Systems Performance: Given that 72% of applications are interconnected with other systems, the adaptability of SD-WAN plays a pivotal role in ensuring optimal performance.
- Robust Growth Stats: The numbers speak for themselves. SD-WAN is employed by a whopping 67% of enterprises, with its deployments skyrocketing by 240% annually. Meanwhile, MPLS connections are dwindling, experiencing a 24% decline each year.
- Enhanced User Experience: Network connectivity is paramount in an interconnected application environment. SD-WAN reduces the likelihood of performance and user experience degradations, which is crucial given its significant contribution to overall application performance.
While MPLS served its purpose effectively in a different era, the demands of modern digital environments necessitate a shift. With its adaptability, efficiency, and growth trajectory, SD-WAN is proving to be the solution forward-thinking enterprises are banking on.
Reimagining Network Operations
As businesses reimagine their operations, they’ve found that the MPLS isn’t keeping up with rapidly evolving network needs. The result? Many organizations are turning to the flexibility, performance, and cost savings of SD-WAN to address the growing number of cloud applications, hybrid and remote workers, and to make adding more sites and including new security technologies more straightforward.
More specifically, here are the advantages of SD-WAN:
- Flexibility and Performance: Adapts to rapidly evolving business needs, especially with the growth in remote users and cloud applications.
- Cost Savings: Offers a more budget-friendly solution when compared to traditional WANs.
- Optimal Technology Utilization: SD-WAN incorporates the best networking technology suitable for specific locations and use cases, providing efficient and effective connectivity.
- Overcomes Traditional WAN Limitations: Bypasses the high costs and inflexibility associated with traditional WANs.
- Challenges of MPLS Alleviated: Eliminates the inflexibility of MPLS hub-spoke architecture and provides more connectivity options like broadband and direct internet.
- Simplified Network Integration: Seamlessly orchestrated and automated through an intelligent software layer, ensuring effortless management and overlay.
- No Need for Conventional Routers: Removes the necessity to deploy traditional routers across the network, leading to simplified management and potential cost savings.
- Support for External Applications: Backs applications and workloads running outside the conventional enterprise perimeter, facilitating a more distributed and modern enterprise approach.
- Provider Independence: Enables configuration of the WAN based on specific business needs without getting tied to a single service provider. This ensures adaptability and potentially better cost control.
- Easy Scalability: Allows businesses to efficiently scale up as their bandwidth demand increases, ensuring they can meet future growth without significant infrastructure overhaul.
Reporting/Network Insights With SD-WAN
A critical advantage of SD-WAN lies in its comprehensive reporting capabilities. This empowers businesses with deep insights, fostering data-driven decisions and optimizing network performance.
Using SD-WAN’s advanced reporting tools, organizations can:
- Observe the bandwidth consumption for individual paths or links within the network.
- Delve into extensive analytics on application and WAN efficiency, aiding in predictive bandwidth management and business strategy.
- Identify applications or connections that experience frequent path quality reductions.
- Produce a Link Performance analysis to ensure the promised bandwidth by the Internet Service Provider (ISP) aligns with actual delivery, which is essential for Service Level Agreement (SLA) adherence.
- Keep tabs on the user’s Quality of Experience (QoE) while navigating the SD-WAN.
Additional capabilities include:
- Tracking the specific business policies consumed by SD-WAN application flows across branches, hubs, or data centers.
- Overseeing capacity utilization to ensure optimal resource allocation.
- Facilitating network blueprinting, audits, troubleshooting endeavors, and determining the return on investment (ROI).
SD-WAN Migration Challenges
Migrating from traditional MPLS to SD-WAN is a transformative step for organizations, enhancing flexibility, cost-effectiveness, and overall network management. However, like any significant shift in infrastructure, migration can present its unique challenges. Let’s delve into these challenges with a balance of technical depth and clarity.
Infrastructure Assessment and Compatibility
Legacy Hardware Concerns
Legacy hardware, often deeply embedded in an organization’s network infrastructure, can pose significant hurdles when considering a migration to SD-WAN. Let’s unpack these concerns in greater detail.
- Age of Equipment: As with any technological equipment, routers, switches, and other network devices age. Over time, they might lag in processing power, memory, and other vital functionalities required for efficient SD-WAN operations.
- Firmware & Software Compatibility: Legacy hardware might not support the latest firmware or software updates necessary for SD-WAN integration. Without these updates, devices may lack crucial features or face security vulnerabilities.
- Physical Port Limitations: Legacy devices might not have the required number or type of ports to support the diverse connectivity options SD-WAN solutions demand, such as LTE, broadband, or fiber connections.
- Performance Constraints: SD-WAN solutions often demand higher computational capabilities for features like real-time traffic analysis, dynamic path selection, and encryption. Older hardware might not meet these computational requirements.
SD-WAN solutions may not always play well with existing network equipment. For example, an existing WAN optimization controller, tailored to enhance MPLS performance, might not be compatible with SD-WAN’s dynamic traffic routing mechanisms. Similarly, traditional firewalls, configured for static MPLS paths, could struggle with SD-WAN’s fluctuating traffic patterns. This misalignment can result in inefficient traffic flow, dropped connections, or even security vulnerabilities.
- Variable Bandwidth: Unlike MPLS, which offers guaranteed bandwidth, SD-WAN utilizes public internet, which can have varying congestion levels, potentially affecting performance.
- Application Performance: Ensuring that critical applications receive the necessary bandwidth and priority is crucial. This requires an accurate assessment of application traffic and crafting appropriate SD-WAN policies.
- Public Internet Exposure: Shifting to SD-WAN, which predominantly uses the public internet, can expose traffic to more threats. Integrating next-gen firewalls, secure web gateways, and other advanced security features is vital.
- End-to-End Encryption: MPLS inherently trusts the core network, while SD-WAN treats every segment as untrusted, demanding robust encryption across the board. Ensuring encryption doesn’t impede performance is a challenge.
Deployment & Configuration Complexity
Zero-Touch Provisioning (ZTP)
At its core, ZTP is a mechanism that automates configuring devices in a network without manual intervention. For instance, when a new branch office is set up, ZTP can allow for routers, switches, and other equipment to be provisioned automatically. However, the catch is in the setup. Implementing ZTP demands a robust initial configuration and a deep understanding of the underlying infrastructure.
For instance, a company expanding its operations overseas might experience time zone challenges, localization needs, or regulatory compliance issues. Moreover, while ZTP aims to minimize human involvement, the preparatory stages can require intensive retraining of the IT staff to familiarize them with the nuances of ZTP setups and to address unexpected challenges during deployment.
While powerful, the dynamic path selection feature of SD-WAN necessitates careful policy configurations for diverse traffic types. For instance, a company might prioritize video conferencing traffic over regular file transfers to ensure smooth meetings. This requires network administrators to create nuanced policies, considering the criticality and bandwidth requirements of various applications, which can be a meticulous and intricate task.
Skillset & Training
- New Technology Curve: IT teams familiar with MPLS may need extensive training on SD-WAN technologies and strategies, impacting rollout timelines.
- Vendor Variance: With many SD-WAN vendors in the market, each with its nuances, training must be specific to the chosen solution.
Monitoring & Reporting
Unlike the more predictable and static paths of MPLS, the dynamic essence of SD-WAN means that paths might change in real-time based on various network conditions like latency, jitter, or packet loss. This dynamic behavior necessitates advanced monitoring solutions. For example, in a global corporation with branches across continents, SD-WAN might shift from one internet connection to another during heavy data transfers. While this ensures optimal performance, it also means that IT teams need to have detailed visibility and alerts for these shifts.
Monitoring tools tailored for SD-WAN provide granular insights like which path was most utilized, why a particular path was chosen over another, or how often these shifts occur. Traditional monitoring solutions might not capture these nuances, leading to blind spots in network oversight.
Failover & High Availability
SD-WAN’s architecture inherently supports failover, ensuring that if one connection path fails, the traffic is rerouted to another available path. However, the real challenge is guaranteeing this transition is seamless, especially during peak traffic. Consider a financial institution executing high-frequency trades; even a minor hiccup during a path switch can lead to significant financial implications.
To ensure zero disruptions, SD-WAN configurations must be meticulously set up with considerations like preemptive path quality checks, seamless path switching mechanisms, and ensuring redundant high-quality paths are always available. Furthermore, a dedicated backup path, like an LTE connection, might be a strategy adopted by businesses that absolutely cannot afford disruptions.
Choosing a single vendor solution can sometimes lead to limitations in flexibility and future scaling. Organizations should be mindful of this and consider interoperability with other systems and potential future changes in their needs.
However, there’s a flip side to this. Opting for a single vendor can offer consistency, streamlined support, and integration benefits. By committing to one provider, you can leverage tailored solutions optimized for their specific environment, ensuring a unified system experience. This can lead to reduced operational complexities, better vendor support responsiveness, and potential cost savings from bundled services. While flexibility is essential, the cohesiveness and efficiency of a unified vendor ecosystem shouldn’t be overlooked.
MPLS to SD-WAN Action Plan
Many steps go into a smooth MPLS to SD-WAN migration, and if you want to avoid any major pitfalls, it’s a good idea to have a detailed action plan. Let’s take a look at some critical steps you should follow.
Assess Your Current Network Needs
What are your current bandwidth requirements? What applications are you using? Where are your users located? This will help you determine the best SD-WAN solution for your organization. This stage is all about documentation and planning. Meticulous documentation and careful planning are critical for any migration but are especially important when transitioning from MPLS to SD-WAN.
Let’s delve deeper into the crucial elements that need documenting and why they matter:
- Overall Network Topology: This serves as the backbone blueprint of your entire network. It illustrates how different nodes, links, and components are interconnected. Having this clearly mapped out enables a smoother transition and ensures that no component is left behind or misconfigured.
- Subnets at Each Location: By documenting the subnets present at each site or location, you gain a clear perspective of the address space distribution. This helps avoid conflicts, ensures efficient traffic routing, and facilitates easier troubleshooting.
- Default Gateways: Essential paths for network traffic accessing external networks. Their documentation helps in pinpointing bottlenecks or potential failures.
- DHCP Scope/Reservations: Dynamic Host Configuration Protocol (DHCP) defines how devices on a network obtain IP addresses. By noting down the DHCP scope and any reservations, you ensure that devices can consistently and correctly acquire their designated IP addresses without conflicts.
- Business-Critical Applications: Identify and document these applications since their performance can significantly impact business operations. When you’re aware of them, you can prioritize them during the migration to ensure minimal disruption.
Be sure to also take careful note of:
- Internet Source and IPs: Knowing the origin and the IP addresses used for internet connectivity is crucial. This helps in reconfiguring the internet access paths post-migration and ensures uninterrupted online connectivity.
- Cloud-hosted Applications (and their locations): The cloud realm is vast, with many providers and locations. You can optimize the connectivity routes and ensure optimal application performance by documenting where each application is hosted and its associated cloud provider.
- Corporate Hosted Applications: These applications, hosted within the company’s infrastructure, are central to various operations. Documenting them ensures you have a comprehensive view of the application landscape, which is essential for seamless integration and performance during and after the migration.
Establishing a Performance Baseline
A successful transition from MPLS to SD-WAN begins with understanding the current network’s strengths and weaknesses. By setting a performance baseline, you’re better equipped to gauge the migration’s impact. Here’s how to set those benchmarks:
Existing Network Performance:
MPLS, Ethernet, and Private Connections
- Latency: Record the average time for data packets to travel across the network.
- Packet Loss: Determine the rate at which packets fail to reach their destination.
Path Length: Note the average number of hops a data packet takes to reach its endpoint.
User Digital Experience for Business-Critical Applications:
- Private Applications: Monitor key metrics like response times and overall uptime.
- SaaS Applications: Track end-user experience metrics, such as load times and service responsiveness.
Data Center and Public Cloud Connectivity:
- Data Center Connectivity: Assess bandwidth, reliability, and speed between branch offices or remote locations and central data centers.
- Public Cloud Connectivity: Evaluate the efficiency and speed of communication with major public cloud platforms.
Determining the Right Assistance
As you advance in your MPLS to SD-WAN migration journey, it’s crucial to evaluate the expertise within your organization and decide whether external assistance is necessary. Here’s a structured approach to navigate this pivotal decision.
Assess In-house Expertise
Review your IT team’s skill set and experience. Have they previously managed similar transitions? Are they familiar with the intricacies of SD-WAN technology and its implementation? If the answers lean towards ‘no,’ you may need external support.
Consider Third-Party Assistance
Hiring a specialized third-party can streamline your migration. They’ll bring expertise, best practices, and experience, reducing potential pitfalls and ensuring a smoother transition.
Explore Service Models
- Fully-Managed SD-WAN: In this model, an external provider assumes complete responsibility for your SD-WAN, from design and deployment to day-to-day management and troubleshooting. It’s an ideal option if you prefer to offload the complexities and retain a singular point of accountability.
- Co-managed SD-WAN: If you wish to retain some control while still benefiting from external expertise, co-managed SD-WAN is your go-to. Here, responsibilities get shared between your in-house team and the third-party service provider.
- Self-managed SD-WAN: This option is best for organizations with a robust in-house team well-versed in SD-WAN technologies. It allows complete control over the SD-WAN environment but also demands more internal resources and time.
Once you’ve done that, it’s time to execute the rest of the plan.
Follow Your High-Level Migration Plan
- Choose an SD-WAN provider. There are many different SD-WAN providers on the market, so it’s important to choose one that meets your specific needs. Consider factors such as the features and functionality offered, the pricing, and the level of support provided.
- Plan your migration. This includes determining the order in which you will migrate your sites, testing your new SD-WAN solution, and communicating with your users about the migration.The documentation and planning from earlier will be invaluable in deciding how to migrate your network.
- Migrate your network. This is the actual process of moving your traffic from MPLS to SD-WAN. It’s important to do this in a controlled and methodical way to avoid any disruptions to your network.
- Test your new network. Once your migration is complete, testing your new network to ensure it’s performing as expected is essential. This includes testing your bandwidth, latency, and application performance.
- Monitor your new network. Once your network is up and running, it’s essential to monitor it continuously to ensure it’s performing as expected. This will help you identify any potential problems early on and take corrective action.
Here are some additional tips for a successful MPLS to SD-WAN migration:
- Get buy-in from all stakeholders. This includes your IT team, your business users, and your management team.
- Start small and scale up. You don’t have to migrate all of your sites at once. Start with a few sites and then gradually migrate the rest over time.
- Use a phased approach. This will help you minimize disruption to your network.
- Have a backup plan. Things don’t always go according to plan, so it’s essential to have a backup plan in case of any problems.
Today, there are more demands on our networks than ever before. MPLS, while once a stalwart of connectivity, is now being overtaken by the flexibility, efficiency, and scalability of SD-WAN. As organizations aim to remain agile and responsive to today’s dynamic environment, the shift to SD-WAN is more than just a technological upgrade—it’s a strategic move towards future-proofing business operations. If there’s ever been a moment to pivot, redefine, and revolutionize your network infrastructure, that time is unequivocally now.
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