Is MPLS Dead?

By Khali Henderson Comments
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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.

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