Will SD-WAN replace MPLS for hybrid work?

Digitalization and the hybrid work environment are increasing the demand for SD-WAN, including managed services. As traditional network architecture shifts from on-premise data centers to the cloud, how do legacy connectivity options stand up?

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MPLS has been around for more than two decades—and for good reason. It’s scalable. It reduces network congestion. And it maximizes bandwidth utilization. Since it’s a virtual private network, it’s also secure and—unlike IP-based networks—not vulnerable to denial-of-service attacks.

Yet, usage of multi-protocol label switching is dropping while the market for SD-WAN (software-defined wide area networks) is one of the fastest-growing markets in the enterprise networking space. So is SD-WAN an MPLS ‘killer’? Not quite.

In a 2022 survey, Futuriom—a research and analysis community focused on next-generation cloud technologies—found that there’s strong demand for many SD-WAN (and SASE) features, including managed security services, self-service portals, multi-cloud connectivity, AIOps and multiple connectivity options, as well as unified communications support and integrated transport.

  • A total of 83% of respondents said digitalization and the hybrid work environment have increased their need for SD-WAN managed services
  • 75% of respondents believe that SD-WAN and SASE managed services will help build momentum behind using the Internet for business connectivity, including Dedicated Internet Access (DIA)


While MPLS is tried-and-true, it was originally designed to connect remote branch offices with headquarters or data centers. But the ‘wide area network’ is changing, as many companies now connect to cloud providers rather than an on-premise data center.

“Once businesses transition to the cloud, the MPLS-based hub-and spoke model becomes inefficient because it routes traffic through corporate headquarters (hubs), which act as central choke points. It is more efficient to send traffic directly to the cloud. Also, the increased use of cloud services, video and mobile apps has driven up bandwidth requirements, and MPLS services are difficult to scale on demand,” according to an article in Network World.

Today’s modern network architecture will benefit from newer technologies that are designed with cloud in mind. For example, SD-WAN is transport-agnostic, which means it can route any type of traffic—even MPLS.

That’s why it doesn’t have to be an MPLS or SD-WAN conversation.



If you’ve made a significant investment in MPLS, you may not be all that keen to chuck that investment out the window. Plus, MPLS delivers guaranteed performance on real-time traffic while SD-WAN can’t make those same guarantees. Once IP packets hit the internet, it’s impossible to guarantee anything.

Yet, the ‘software-defined’ nature of SD-WAN translates to lower costs and increased flexibility with multiple connectivity paths. Remote offices can be connected quickly and easily with plug-and-play device activation—and centrally managed.

While in some cases it may make sense to replace an aging legacy infrastructure, it’s possible to take a hybrid approach by augmenting MPLS with SD-WAN. Indeed, Zeus Kerravala of Network World expects the two will co-exist, although the role of MPLS will change.so companies don’t have to chuck their investment in legacy infrastructure out the window.

“The reality is the two technologies are complementary, so it’s important to understand how to use each to design a network that provides not simply the best possible price, but the best price/performance,” Kerravala says in the Network World article.

Read more:

UCaaS and SD-WAN: The next dynamic duo?
Future of work webinar: Operational productivity
Simplify your networking with Allstream SD-WAN

Embracing a hybrid future

This is critical for the future of work, as companies roll out hybrid work strategies and struggle to manage ever-expanding hybrid and multi-cloud environments.

“SD-WAN-enabled networks can simultaneously provide different connectivity options companies need to support remote work, which is a major benefit named by IT decision-makers looking to transition to hybrid access,” Kerravala says in an article for Silicon Angle.

MPLS or SD-WAN doesn’t have to be an either/or conversation. After all, we already have hybrid cloud, hybrid compute and hybrid storage—so the idea of hybrid WANs shouldn’t be too ‘out there.’

Images: lvcandy/iStock; sefa ozel/iStock

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