SD-WAN vs. MPLS: A Head-to-Head Comparison

Not that long ago, IT professionals would laugh at the idea of replacing a reliable, private MPLS (Multiprotocol Label Switching) WAN link at branch locations with an internet/cloud-based SD-WAN (Software-Defined Wide Area Network). Not anymore. These days, enterprises are adopting SD-WAN as a branch connectivity method at an ever increasing rate. Gartner estimates that by the end of 2023, more than 90% of edge infrastructure refreshes will be SD-WAN (or other virtualized platforms) versus traditional routers.1

An extensive research study, Wide-Area Network Transformation: How Enterprises Succeed with Software Defined WAN, by the Enterprise Management Associates’ (EMA)detailsjust how rapid the adoption of SD-WAN is, particularly for distributed enterprises. It found that 87 percent of enterprises with branches are increasing their use of the internet for a primary WAN connection. Two years ago, that number was 74%.

But the research also found that MPLS is not going away—yet—52 percent of respondents said they were supplementing MPLS with internet WAN connections and not eliminating MPLS. Another 21 percent were reducing their MPLS bandwidth and only 15 percent were completely abandoning MPLS in favor of SD-WAN.2

Making the decision to move from MPLS to SD-WAN is strategic and will fundamentally change how businesses communicate. Let’s take a look at how MPLS and SD-WAN stack up when compared to each other and what factors are driving the move to SD-WAN.

SD-WAN vs. MPLS Comparison

NetworkSoftware-defined over the InternetData center (hardware) dependent
BandwidthMultiple non-bandwidth pathwaysExpensive, particularly with video and other bandwidth-intensive applications
CostTypically 30% less per megabitHigh per megabit
TCOUp to 50% lessCostly implementation and operation
CarrierAgnosticCarrier dependent
ScalabilityPay as you growCostly hardware implementation and operation
ManagementUnified, centralizedComplicated, on-site, multiple point-to-point links
ProvisioningZero touchComplex, time-consuming, on-site
QoSBest for distributed enterprisesBest for point-to-point, mission-critical links
ControlIntegrated, end-to-end visibilitySeparate, point-to-point links
SecurityEnd-to-end encryptionIndividual systems


SD-WAN Business Drivers
When comparing SD-WAN to MPLS networks, a few things become obvious. MPLS has its place in specific use cases particularly with point-to-point, mission-critical applications. But in this era of growing IT complexity, CIOs want—and need—more IT simplicity to accommodate the explosion of data and endpoints. Here are the key drivers of SD-WAN adoption.

Do More with Less
IDC research found that SD-WAN closes the IT skills gap by requiring less IT staff and time. This is particularly true in distributed enterprises with little or no IT staff at remote sites. SD-WAN eliminates geographic boundaries and enables centralized management and automation.3

Improve Network Agility
This is key. Researchers identified flexibility as one of the top reasons 42% of IT professionals surveyed cited for making the move to SD-WAN. It gives them the ability to centrally make changes as needed without involving an MPLS provider or having to arrange for time consuming and costly on-site updates. Enterprises can now provision a new site in days rather than weeks or months as compared to MPLS networks, which are hardware intensive. Because SD-WAN is software defined, businesses can address new opportunities and operations quickly and at scale. In addition, SD-WAN offers more flexibility in connecting and controlling IoT devices at remote sites.4

Cloud Connectivity
Connectivity to cloud services was identified by 42% of respondents as another important reason for migrating to SD-WAN. This is becoming more important as more systems and applications, such as SalesForce, live in the cloud and all users, local and remote, need direct and timely access.5

Application Performance
SD-WAN isn’t replacing MPLS, but it is being used as a supplement to MPLS networks by 52% of the companies. One great advantage SD-WAN offers is the ability to segment traffic over multiple pathways based on priority and applications to improve performance. It also improves connectivity to the growing number of endpoint devices like smartphones, laptops, PoS kiosks, sensors, and more6. Overall, 79% of enterprises reported that the number of devices connected to their network is growing and 30% said that the growth is significant.7

Quality of Service
One of the biggest advantages of MPLS offers is its excellent delivery of data packets and high quality of service. But today, SD-WAN can offer high quality of service via multiple links (broadband and cellular) for redundancy and flexibility. This provides the same resiliency as MPLS but for far less.

Carrier Independence
MPLS has been around for 20 years and was the way WANs were created. You needed the “phone company” to set up your point-to-point links in a process that could takes weeks, but more likely months, if carrier service was available where you needed it. And, when you did finally get the hardware, you were tied to the carrier to put in troubleshooting tickets—another slow, tedious, and costly process. For years, IT has been at the mercy of the carrier’s footprint and network technologies. An IDG survey, reported that 82 percent of respondents said they were frustrated with the high cost or complexity of MPLS. .” In addition, 34 percent said they were being held back by existing MPLS contracts. Now, IT professionals are seeing SD-WAN as a way to “cut the cord.” As existing MPLS carrier contracts expire, many enterprises are moving to SD-WAN or are adding SD-WAN links to their existing MPLS networks now.

SD-WAN offers a lower total cost of ownership compared to traditional hub-and-spoke MPLS networks. One of the primary reasons is that MPLS has a much greater cost per bit than broadband or LTE links. It’s estimated that the average cost per MPLS circuit is $600 per month, which can easily go up depending on applications and bandwidth requirements. SD-WAN can easily accommodate various bandwidth demands at up to 30% to 50% less than MPLS links. In addition, SD-WAN eliminates expensive MPLS routers and traditional network equipment at each location. You also eliminate the need to dispatch techs to install and maintain the network locally. With SD-WAN, you get zero-touch provisioning from a central location.

Digital Transformation
Digital transformation is the real catalyst in the adoption of SD-WAN, particularly in distributed enterprises. In today’s world of leaner budgets, leaner IT staffs, and increasingly greater demands for connectivity, SD-WAN is coming to the rescue. IT directors are using it to digitally transform and manage branch networks, including the explosion of endpoints such as smartphones, laptops, kiosks, cameras, etc.

“Digital transformation is quickly becoming the largest driver of new technology investments and projects among businesses,” said Craig Simpson, IDC research manager. “It is already clear from our research that the businesses which have invested heavily in digital transformation over the last two–three years are already reaping the rewards in terms of faster revenue growth and stronger net profits compared to businesses lagging in digital transformation initiatives and investments.”8

SD-WAN is the enabler of that transformation and is the new favorite among IT professionals in terms of total satisfaction with network performance, cost, and simplicity. Enterprises that have fully completed their SD-WAN implementation are five times more likely to describe themselves as very successful, compared with enterprises that have no SD-WAN plans, or are still in the research and planning phase.9

Black Box offers state-of-the-art SD-WAN technology in its SimplEdge network-in-a-box bundle, which includes everything needed for branch networks from the cabling, Wi-Fi, and security to complete professional, managed services and support. Learn more about SimplEdge at

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  1. Joe Skorupa, Andrew Lerner, Christian Canales, Mike Toussaint, Gartner Magic Quadrant for WAN Edge Infrastructure (October 2018)
  2. Shamus McGillicuddy, Network Computing “The Internet is the Future of the WAN, but MPLS will Persist” (December 2018)
  3. Rohit Mehra, Rajesh Ghai, Brad Casemore, IDC Technology Spotlight “SD-WAN: Security, Application Experience and Operational Simplicity Drive Market Growth” (April 2019)
  4. Shamus McGillicuddy, Network Computing “The Internet is the Future of the WAN, but MPLS will Persist” (December 2018)
  5. Ibid
  6. Ibid
  7. Wide Area Network Transformation: How Enterprises Succeed with Software-Defined WAN, Enterprise Management Associates, Inc. (December 2018)
  8. “Businesses Will Spend Nearly $1.2 Trillion on Digital Transformation This Year as They Seek an Edge in the Digital Economy,” IDC Media Center (April 2019)
  9. Ricardo Belmar, Network Computing, “Survey Examines WAN Transformation and SD-WAN's Impact” (June 28, 2019)
MPLSvsSDWAN ConnectivitySolutions NetworkingComparison NetworkTransformation SDWAN BranchNetworking SDWANBenefits FutureConnectivity WANConnectivity Cloud Networking Enterprise Networking GSI Managed Services MPLS SD-Wan Wide Area Networking
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