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How SDN Enables The Internet to Replace MPLS
SDN-WAN technology can turn multiple Internet broadband connections into a high performance business network solution.

By: John Shepler

High performance, high cost. Low performance, low cost. This has been the story of WAN bandwidth connections for business. You can save a bundle with Cable or DSL Internet broadband, but the reliability and performance variations may drive you nuts. Or, you can pay up for a proprietary private line solution or MPLS network and enjoy high reliability, low latency and consistent line speed… if you can afford the price. If there was only a way to make the Internet perform like an MPLS network, that would be a huge cost saver. Well, thanks to SDN, now there is.

What SDN is All About
SDN is the latest buzzword for the cutting edge of telecommunications connections. Sometimes you’ll see it described as Hybrid SDN or SDN-WAN. Here’s what those acronyms mean and how they can work to your advantage. SDN simply means Software Defined Network. That’s to distinguish it from the traditional hardware-based networks that were pioneered by the telephone companies and later used to create digital private lines and the backbone of the Internet. Today’s IP networks are chock full of individual routers and switches that set the architecture of the network. MPLS networks have an even more rigid topology created from specialized label switches that do the traffic routing.

A software defined network moves the intelligence of how the network makes decisions away from the pre-determined and hard to change path and routing assignments to a software program that orchestrates how the hardware elements behave at any given time. SDN-WAN is a Wide Area Network running under SDN control. This may be a hybrid of Internet, private line and MPLS networks all connected together to make one virtual WAN network.

What’s Holding Back The Internet?
The lure of the Internet is a siren song that has been easy to embrace, but, sometimes, with dire consequences. The reason is that the Internet was never designed to be a replacement for the hardware defined circuit switched telecom networks. It was meant to be a shared pool of resources that moves packets of data from one place to another accurately, no matter what goes wrong on the network. TCP/IP ensures intact files. It doesn’t offer any guarantees as to when those files will get to their destination. Your files aren’t any more or less important than anyone else’s.

Consequently, today’s Internet users experience variations in performance that might be annoying to a home user trying to watch a movie, but a productivity killer to a business running software as a service in the cloud. Voice and video two-way communication is dicey because network neutrality means there is no way to prioritize traffic. The streams of VoIP packets take their turns with huge file transfers. When the paths get congested, conversations become garbled and calls sometimes drop.

Making The Internet Great For Business
Take a closer look at what’s going on in the Internet and you’ll see that most of the problems are concentrated in “the last mile” connections and not the core network. The reasons that compromises are made to keep the cost of connecting low. For instance, DSL and Cable, the two lowest cost wireline broadband access technologies, include shared and asymmetrical bandwidth with no service level agreements. You take what you get in the way of instantaneous bandwidth, network congestion, latency, packet loss and reliability.

You can improve on this by moving to Dedicated Internet Access or DIA. That includes T1 lines, DS3 bandwidth, OCx SONET, Ethernet over Copper, and Fiber Optic Carrier Ethernet. All of these “carrier grade” solutions provide a more solid connection to the Internet, but at a price. That price is anywhere from 2 or 3x the cost on up to 10x or more.

Where Do Private Lines and MPLS Fit In?
You can get the highest performance network in terms of high bandwidth, low latency, jitter and packet loss, and availability by building your own private Internet. A classic way to do this is to run dedicated private lines between every location you wish to connect. That gets very pricey very fast. MPLS (Multi-Protocol Label Switching) networks improve on cost by essentially giving you a private Internet among all your desired locations for a price that’s better than dedicated private lines but still much higher than the Internet.

Companies have embraced MPLS for their internal communications among headquarters, branch offices and data centers when performance is paramount.

How SDN Mimics MPLS at Lower Cost
Truth be told, the performance of Cable Broadband solutions is far superior to what you could get a decade ago. You can get bandwidth levels of 100 Mbps or even 1 Gbps at bargain rates. It’s the variability that’s the bugaboo of Cable, DSL, 4G Wireless and the Internet itself.

What SDN controllers do is manage your connectivity resources on a continuous basis. You’ll need more than one connection for the SDN to have something to manage. These might include Cable broadband, DSL, 4G, Dedicated Internet access, private lines and even satellite in remote areas. The SDN will decide what traffic goes over what circuit depending on the characteristics of each network moment by moment. If no circuit is perfect, it might send the same traffic over multiple paths. More critical applications, such as VoIP and video conferencing, will get priority on the higher performance paths.

In essence, you are creating classes of service to prioritize your traffic even though the Internet itself does no such thing. Your costs will be lower than an all-private solution and you have the added advantage of being able to connect anywhere on Earth, including to your customers and suppliers, via the Internet. The world-wide core infrastructure is already in place and the cost is being amortized over many millions of users.

Do you suspect that you are paying much more that you could be for your wide area network connections? Find out now if there is a readily available lower cost SDN-based bandwidth solution that meets your requirements.

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