Although not likely to disappear any time soon, MPLS is not a panacea and there are other more cost-effective means to reach the cloud.

May 28, 2014

6 Min Read
Is MPLS Dead?

By Khali Henderson

Is MPLS dead? This provocative question was raised by a business decision-maker at an educational event for prospective cloud customers I attended recently. The question, he said, was one he heard from new vendor, Zscaler Inc., which had called on him.

Zscaler is one of many companies that while not writing the obituary for MPLS are saying it’s not a panacea and there are other more cost-effective means to reach the cloud.

“Is MPLS really dead? It’s not, but its peak is over,” said Jay Chaudhry, founder and CEO of Zscaler, who estimated half of MPLS traffic will move to alternatives within five years.

Chaudhry said enterprise networks designed 15 years ago served their purposes, but need to adapt to changes in:

  • Traffic destination – much of what used to go to the data center now goes to the Internet and cloud-based applications

  • Traffic patterns – most employees who used to work from offices in a few locations now are global and mobile

“CIOs and CTOs are interested in controlling the spiraling cost of MPLS because of rapidly growing Internet traffic,” said Chaudhry. “That’s where we come in.”

Zscaler’s Direct-to-Cloud Network helps large companies to economically and securely split traffic bound for the data center over MPLS connections from traffic bound for the Internet. Internet traffic is routed through an IPSec or GRE tunnel to the nearest one of hundreds of Zscaler data centers, which are equipped with proxy appliances to enforce policy and security on the traffic before sending it on to the Internet. Data center traffic stays on the MPLS network.

This approach is in contrast to two more expensive options, Chaudhry explained:

  • Leaving increasing volumes of Internet traffic on MPLS connections

  • Installing a gateway (usually two for failover) at every branch location at $400-500 apiece plus 15 percent for annual maintenance contracts

Chaudhry is not the only one floating MPLS alternatives. Andy Gottlieb, vice president of product management at Aryaka Networks Inc. is another. He agreed that MPLS is not likely to disappear anytime soon. And he too predicted it will “stop growing and start shrinking” — not unlike the mainframe computer, which has survived the PC and client-server computing, both of which were predicted to replace it.

MPLS’s “replacements,” Gottlieb said all revolve around the Internet — from plain old Internet connections to network-as-a-service (NaaS) to application delivery networking to WAN virtualization.

Public Internet. “Until a few years ago, MPLS was the only reasonable choice for reliable and predictable performance,” Gottlieb said, explaining that the public Internet was not able to deliver high uptime and low packet loss required for high-performing applications. “That’s why MPLS has taken over the market.”

Nearly half (49.3 percent) of IT pros surveyed said 41-100 percent of their companies’ WAN traffic was over MPLS networks while less than a third (31.1 percent) said the same amount was over the Internet, according to “The 2014 State of the WAN Report,” which was published by industry analyst firm Ashton, Metzler & Associates  and underwritten by Talari Networks. The study also showed that nearly half of companies (48.3 percent) expected their use of Internet services to increase; a little more than a third (36.3 percent) said the same of MPLS.

The idea that more companies are looking at the Internet is not a surprise to Gottlieb, who argued that today “the public Internet” works pretty well within well-connected countries. “It may not be good enough for all enterprises, but it’s good for small and medium businesses,” he said.

Large enterprises have the added complication of international locations, he explained. The public Internet doesn’t work well across oceans and it’s spotty in the “rest of the world” outside the U.S. and Europe, he said.

Network-as-a-Service. Aryaka’s answer for these multinational organizations is NaaS. The company operates a global network of PoPs connected over a private core. Customers connect via IPsec tunnels through the Internet to the nearest PoP. Aryaka adds TCP optimization, and WAN optimization-as-a-service, including bandwidth scaling (deduplication and compression)and application acceleration proxies. Aryaka took a page from content delivery networking and applied it to site-to-site and site-to-cloud networking, bringing its PoPs closer to customer locations. “When there are problems on the [MPLS] network, it takes a long time to react to it, because you have to go from one end to the other. With Aryaka, we can react to loss more quickly,” Gottlieb said.

Is NaaS less expensive? “The answer is somewhere between ‘yes’ and ‘hell yes,’” he said, noting that NaaS is almost always cheaper than MPLS alone, but significantly cheaper than MPLS with WAN optimization — the gold standard for high-performance wide area networking.

NaaS also represents a solution to accessing cloud services in a scalable way, which MPLS does not. MPLS providers’ solution is to add a link to various cloud providers’ networks. “They literally have to add a link to every location you want to go to and you have to pay for it,” Gottlieb said. “It’s hard to manage, it doesn’t scale and it’s likely to be more expensive.”

WAN Virtualization. WAN virtualization combines multiple Internet connections, wrapped with a layer of hardware and software intelligence, to deliver reliable high bandwidth less expensively than with a single-carrier MPLS network. WAN virtualization delivers applications and determines where to put traffic based on the current, real-time conditions of each network connection. Some can even move traffic from one connection to another in real time in response to network congestion.

Talari and Ipanema are some suppliers in the space, but cloud services provider Evolve IP in February launched its own solution, Cloud Connect, to enable secure access to its cloud services and a cost-effective alternative to MPLS. Cloud Connect combines bonding technology from Multapplied Networks with Evolve IP’s Internet access network and cloud security platform.

Evolve IP’s CTO Scott Kinka explained: “We were trying to provide the ability for customers to get whatever [connections] they could get at a location and leverage them at the same time … and fail elegantly and seamlessly between connections.”

For Evolve IP sales partners, it also enables them to leverage their agent agreements with carriers to earn commissions on the connectivity, rather than have to use the cloud provider’s private network.

Cloud Connect is a little like load balancing, but it’s two-ended, Kinka said. Evolve IP deploys an appliance in the customer location that communicates with an aggregation server in Evolve IP’s data centers. The appliance aggregates connections and moves packets to the aggregation server. So both ends — the client device and the cloud services — are viewing the same IP address, enabling failover on a packet basis instead of a session basis. If an individual connection is misbehaving, the aggregation server won’t use it and, while not QoS via label switched paths like MPLS, this approach enables prioritization of critical traffic over the best performing connections.

“We are not looking to tear out 20MB fiber connections directly into to our MPLS core. It’s an alternative to sites with one or two T1s and a broadband backup,” said Kinka, noting that Evolve IP can mesh Cloud Connect with MPLS for a company with headquarters and branch offices. “I don’t think MPLS is going away by any stretch.”

Khali Henderson in editor-in-chief of Channel Partners.
Twitter: @khalihenderson

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