COVID-19 is changing how IT thinks about MPLS: What networks and leaders need now

Avatar for Ray WatsonBy Ray Watson|May 19, 2020|7:30 am CDT

SD-WAN has popularized the idea of converting all of your network’s private connections to public connections, but today COVID-19 is challenging the all-broadband strategy. The same way it’s changing much of everything these days, COVID-19 is forcing IT leaders to take a fresh look at their corporate network connectivity with a new focus on near-perfect cloud application performance to enable their virtual workforce. That rethink is triggering executives to reconsider the broadband-heavy strategy many have been putting into place for the past two years. Attitudes toward private connectivity are shifting again. Here’s what it shows us.

Then vs. now: Private connectivity’s shifting position

Over the past two years, there’s been a push for the “death of MPLS” and a lot of talk about SD-WAN as the new “MPLS killer” or “MPLS alternative.” Indeed, SD-WAN makes it easy to trade out private network service for the cost savings of the public internet. As a result, many enterprises jumped on the bandwagon. Adopters undoubtedly cut costs, but not without reducing the reliability of their network and cloud application delivery.

Now, COVID-19 is casting doubt on what has been the hottest trend in networking over the past two years.

That doubt is the byproduct of today’s race to the virtual workforce. Enterprises are struggling with the network demands of cloud communications. VoIP and video conferencing requires near-perfect network performance, and it seems our society at large is now sitting at home frustrated by the poor quality of cloud video/voice service backed by an all-broadband strategy. This reality is making us all hyper-aware of how important private connectivity and near-perfect network performance is. After all, MPLS networks and their performance guarantees were purpose built for voice and video.

All of this begs new questions that are changing the way IT leaders think about MPLS: Has the all-broadband approach destroyed the ability to adequately support cloud communications and work-from-home business models? Are the IT leaders who killed MPLS sorry they did it? Was killing MPLS just a short-term trend dampened by the pandemic?

Masergy’s take: The same as it ever was

Masergy has always taken the position that private and public connectivity should coexist–not cancel each other out. In light of COVID-19, we stand all the more confidently in that corner. Public connectivity plays an important role, providing unique advantages unlike any other tool in the box. It works very well in the right scenarios. Indeed, it has empowered millions of remote workers and saved a lot of money. However, in order to serve a virtual workforce with high-quality communications (as well as other critical business applications) you still need at least one private connection.

There’s another reason private connectivity needs to be resurrected in the modern era of rapid change and more volatility. In tumultuous times, extreme flexibility is key. When one day you need network service that’s cheap and flimsy and the next day you need steadfast reliability, you’ll want the widest range of options with controls that make adjustments on the fly. You’ll need the full-scale freedom of setting your network connectivity right where you need it today alongside the confidence of knowing you can make adjustments tomorrow.

What leaders need now: The connectivity lesson from COVID-19

COVID-19 gives us an even more important takeaway: Now more than ever, IT leaders need to master all the different connectivity types with a depth of knowledge about the pros and cons tied to each one. In today’s volatile world, being a savvy connectivity strategist is the key to managing network risk. Broadband, wireless, dedicated Internet access, and private access–each connectivity type is a different animal with a different impact on business continuity. Understanding the nuances helps companies control network performance no matter what unknowables are happening in the world. Here’s Masergy’s quick lesson as well as a link to our guide to connectivity design.

Public internet access: Use with caution

Public internet access or broadband is the most unreliable data transfer method but the most cost effective. Transporting network traffic over long distances is particularly difficult. Managing multiple providers and troubleshooting the service can also be difficult, as patchworked systems with traffic handoffs can lead to finger-pointing frustrations.

If you’re risk-averse:

  • Use it only as a backup or failover connectivity
  • Use it only for regional transport or reserve it for applications that are labeled as optional (Wi-Fi, Facebook, and YouTube)

If you’re risk-tolerant:

  • Use it for primary transport
  • Leverage multiple connections for both primary and backup, accepting the availability decreases for the cost advantages

Fixed wireless or 4G/5G: Best for provisioning and backup

Fixed wireless (commonly confused with broadband) is unpredictable and is typically used only for backup/failover connectivity or as a temporary connection for provisioning new locations. Why? Because it can be maxed out quickly. The amount of data sent over a fixed wireless connection on a normal business day at even a small branch office would exceed the monthly bandwidth allotment for a typical 4G connection. While the promise of 5G is strong, today’s solutions have not yet fixed this issue.

Dedicated internet access: A middle-of-the-road option

Many decision makers are attracted to the “happy medium” of Dedicated Internet Access (DIA). It’s a middle-of-the-road option but it still has pros and cons. It is more reliable and more expensive than broadband. When compared to MPLS, it’s less reliable and less expensive. Many leaders typically match DIA with applications and services that are still important but not considered business critical.

Note that DIA still counts as public access (not private), which means it’s less reliable as well as vulnerable to massive outages and security threats due in part to several major chokepoints in the internet infrastructure. IT executives with a risk-sensitive approach should understand that Gartner and other respected analyst firms predict mass-scale internet outages of more than 100 million users for longer than 24 hours. Public access of any kind still comes with reliability risk.

MPLS or private access: SLAs are the book of truth

MPLS remains the most reliable connectivity type. The tried-and-true character of private connectivity comes with higher prices but also delivers performance guarantees. When it comes to comparing services across different providers, SLAs are the book of truth. But don’t forget that agility, real-time performance visibility, and rapid change management processes are also key differentiators.

Learn more in this guide to SD-WAN connectivity design.

Every business, application, user group, and connected location will have different needs and different levels of risk tolerance when it comes to network availability and business continuity. There’s no right or wrong way to connect your network. It’s simply a matter of striking the right balance between price, performance, and risk.

In the wake of COVID-19, I believe private connectivity will likely live on for quite a while. As long as companies face pandemics and have to maintain mission-critical applications, contact centers, and data centers they’re likely to have at least one private connection. And if COVID-19 hasn’t convinced you to have at least one, well then, you likely can’t be convinced.

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