SD-WAN vs. MPLS: Differences, Benefits & Drawbacks

Software-defined wide area networking (SD-WAN) and multiprotocol label switching (MPLS) are perhaps the two most widespread concepts in digital business architecture. These adjacent technologies hold similar capabilities in the broader scope of corporate network infrastructure, but they also represent unique approaches to network security, interconnectivity, and scalability.

Here, we take a closer look at SD-WAN vs. MPLS, noting potential benefits, differences, and drawbacks for businesses looking to implement one of these high-level systems.

What Is SD-WAN?

SD-WAN is a transformative technology that revolutionizes traditional enterprise network architectures. By decoupling network control from hardware and leveraging software-defined principles, SD-WAN optimizes connectivity and efficiently manages traffic across geographically dispersed locations. It addresses the limitations of conventional wide-area networks (WANs), enhancing performance, agility, and cost-effectiveness.

At its core, SD-WAN centralizes network management through a centralized controller, offering unprecedented visibility and control over the entire network; this allows administrators to define policies based on application priorities, security requirements, and available bandwidth. By intelligently routing traffic over multiple pathways, including MPLS, broadband, and cellular connections, SD-WAN mitigates latency and congestion, ensuring optimal application performance.

The dynamic nature of SD-WAN adapts to network conditions in real-time, automatically rerouting traffic to the most suitable path, thus improving reliability and minimizing downtime. This process entails techniques such as load balancing, quality of service (QoS) optimization, and path selection algorithms. Furthermore, SD-WAN incorporates advanced security measures by integrating firewalling, encryption, and intrusion detection – all of which safeguard data across the network perimeter.

While SD-WAN offers a multitude of benefits, it also presents potential drawbacks when compared to traditional MPLS networks. SD-WAN relies heavily on public internet connections, leading to inconsistent performance and security concerns. MPLS, on the other hand, provides predictable and dedicated connections with robust security features. SD-WAN’s complexity might require additional IT expertise to manage effectively, while MPLS networks are often simpler to administer. In remote or less developed areas, reliable internet connectivity can be an issue for SD-WAN. Ultimately, the decision between SD-WAN and MPLS should consider factors like performance, security, and the organization’s specific needs.

What Is MPLS?

Meanwhile, MPLS represents a pivotal advancement in networking, refining data transmission efficiency within complex networks. Unlike conventional IP-based routing, MPLS assigns labels to data packets, allowing routers to make forwarding decisions based on these labels rather than examining lengthy headers, thus streamlining data flow. This label-centric approach expedites data routing and enhances network performance by reducing processing overhead at each intermediate router. MPLS networks focus on label-switched paths (LSPs), predetermined routes through the network that correspond to specific label sequences. These paths enable prioritization and traffic engineering, where packets with certain labels can be assigned a higher priority, leading to improved QoS for critical applications.

MPLS also offers Virtual Private Network (VPN) capabilities, allowing multiple customers or business units to share the same underlying infrastructure while maintaining data isolation and security. This process functions through label distribution protocol (LDP) and border gateway protocol (BGP) to create separate VPNs within the network. Similarly, MPLS supports traffic engineering (TE), a mechanism that enables network operators to control and optimize traffic flows, distributing load evenly across available paths and preventing congestion.

However, employing MPLS over SD-WAN can also present setbacks. MPLS is expensive due to dedicated hardware and long provisioning times, limiting cost-efficiency and agility. Unlike SD-WAN’s dynamic path selection, MPLS lacks automatic traffic rerouting during network failures, leading to downtime. Scaling MPLS requires hardware upgrades, which increases complexity. In contrast to SD-WAN’s simplified management, MPLS configurations are intricate and can demand specialized expertise. MPLS doesn’t optimize for cloud applications, affecting performance. Moreover, MPLS struggles to accommodate the diverse traffic types of modern networks, potentially hindering service quality. In sum, while reliable, MPLS can hinder adaptability, efficiency, and cost-effectiveness compared to SD-WAN.

Benefits Of SD-WAN vs. MPLS

Key benefits of choosing SD-WAN over MPLS may include:

Enhanced Network Performance

Software-Defined Wide Area Networking (SD-WAN) stands as a transformative solution that profoundly enhances network performance. Traditional networks often suffer from congestion and latency issues due to the rigidity of their architecture. SD-WAN, however, redefines the networking landscape by optimizing data traffic flows dynamically. This dynamic optimization relies on real-time traffic analysis, ensuring that critical applications receive priority while less demanding tasks see appropriate management.

Thanks to its intelligent path selection capabilities, SD-WAN takes advantage of multiple network links, such as MPLS, broadband, and cellular connections; this enables traffic to pass through the most efficient path based on the application’s specific requirements and the quality of each available connection. Consequently, SD-WAN tackles the common challenge of network congestion by distributing the traffic across diverse paths, thus achieving high throughput and bolstering overall network performance.

Improved Cost Efficiency

A distinct advantage of SD-WAN lies in its ability to deliver improved cost efficiency, a key driver for businesses seeking optimized operational expenditures. Traditional WAN setups often demand dedicated lines and hardware at each branch office, which can be both expensive and labor-intensive to manage. SD-WAN revolutionizes this by capitalizing on cost-effective internet connections while still maintaining the required performance levels.

With its centralized management and orchestration capabilities, SD-WAN eliminates the need for proprietary hardware and manual configurations at individual sites. Streamlined deployment, maintenance, and constant updating contribute to reduced administrative overhead. Moreover, dynamic traffic optimization decreases the need for excessive bandwidth, making it possible to allocate resources more efficiently. Consequently, businesses can experience substantial cost savings while enjoying a network environment that adapts seamlessly to their evolving needs.

Enhanced Security

SD-WAN introduces a robust layer of enhanced security, a paramount concern in today’s ever-evolving threat landscape. WANs often rely on perimeter-based security mechanisms, leaving organizations vulnerable to advanced cyberattacks that target their distributed network architecture. SD-WAN addresses this challenge by integrating security functionalities directly into the network infrastructure.

Through its integration with next-generation firewalls (NGFWs) and intrusion detection/prevention systems (IDS/IPS), SD-WAN ensures consistent and up-to-date security enforcement across all branch locations; this guarantees that security policies remain uniform regardless of the network’s physical location. Additionally, SD-WAN facilitates the secure segmentation of network traffic, preventing lateral movement of threats across different segments.

Streamlined Management and Automation

A cornerstone of SD-WAN’s appeal is its capacity to streamline network management and administration through automation. In conventional WAN setups, managing multiple branch offices and their associated networking components can be complex and time-consuming. SD-WAN simplifies this by providing a centralized management platform that offers a comprehensive view of the entire network.

As a result of this central control, IT teams can provision and configure branch locations remotely, eliminating the need for on-site interventions. Furthermore, policy management becomes more efficient as administrators can define and enforce policies from a single interface. Automation takes this a step further, allowing the network to adapt in real time to changing conditions. This not only reduces human error but also enables the network to optimize performance without continuous manual intervention.

Scalability and Flexibility

SD-WAN offers unparalleled scalability and flexibility, catering to the dynamic needs of modern businesses. Traditional WAN architectures can be inflexible and cumbersome to scale, often requiring significant lead time to provision new sites or adjust network resources. SD-WAN transforms this process by enabling rapid deployment and configuration changes.

With its software-centric approach, SD-WAN empowers businesses to scale up or down based on demand without being encumbered by hardware limitations. The ability to onboard new branch offices or remote locations swiftly, and to adapt network resources according to changing business priorities, grants organizations a competitive edge in a fast-paced market environment.

Benefits Of MPLS vs. SD-WAN

MPLS, on the other hand, may gain a competitive edge over SD-WAN in the following fields:

Reliable and Predictable Performance

Multi-Protocol Label Switching (MPLS) presents a suite of benefits that cater to the specific needs of enterprises. One of its most salient advantages is delivering reliable and predictable network performance. Unlike traditional IP-based routing, MPLS employs labels to direct traffic along predefined paths, creating a virtual circuit-like environment. This label-based approach ensures that data traverses the network following the same path, eliminating the potential for congestion-related performance degradation.

MPLS aims to prioritize mission-critical applications, guaranteeing QoS by assigning different classes of service to various traffic types. This capability, in turn, translates to a network where latency-sensitive applications, such as voice and video, experience consistent and optimized performance, irrespective of the overall network load. Moreover, MPLS networks are inherently stable and offer low latency due to their traffic engineering capabilities. This stability makes MPLS a trusted choice for businesses seeking a robust network foundation.

Enhanced Security

Security is a hallmark benefit of MPLS, addressing the evolving challenges of data protection in an interconnected world. MPLS networks inherently operate in a private, isolated environment, shielding internal traffic from external visibility. This isolation, often referred to as network segmentation, enhances security by reducing the exposure of critical data to potential threats.

Additionally, MPLS employs built-in encryption mechanisms to secure data as it traverses the network. With its Label Switched Paths (LSPs), MPLS establishes dedicated communication channels for specific traffic flows. These LSPs can be encrypted, ensuring that data remains confidential and protected from unauthorized access. This security-by-design approach significantly mitigates the risks associated with data breaches and unauthorized interception, making MPLS an attractive choice for industries dealing with sensitive information.

Efficient Traffic Engineering

MPLS brings forth the advantage of efficient traffic engineering, enabling network administrators to exert precise control over data flows. Traditional routing protocols often lack the granularity needed to manage traffic paths effectively, leading to suboptimal utilization of network resources. MPLS tackles this challenge by allowing administrators to set explicit paths for data using labels.

This granular control permits optimized routing based on available bandwidth, latency, and network health. Traffic engineering in MPLS not only enhances performance but also minimizes bottlenecks by intelligently distributing traffic across multiple paths. This proactive approach to managing network traffic ensures that resources are utilized optimally, resulting in reduced congestion and improved overall network efficiency.

Simplified Network Management

Simplicity in network management is a compelling benefit that MPLS brings to the table. Traditional networks often require complex configuration and maintenance, especially when dealing with multiple remote locations. MPLS simplifies this by abstracting the underlying complexities and presenting a more streamlined management experience.

MPLS networks offer centralized control through a network provider, allowing businesses to offload the burden of configuring individual routers and managing routing tables. This centralization not only reduces administrative overhead but also promotes consistency across the network. Changes to routing policies or Quality of Service settings can be applied globally from a single point, ensuring uniformity in network operations.

Support for Multiple Traffic Types

MPLS offers robust support for various types of traffic, making it versatile for diverse enterprise needs. In today’s interconnected landscape, businesses rely on a combination of data, voice, and video applications to operate efficiently. MPLS accommodates this diversity by providing a mechanism to prioritize and manage different types of traffic effectively. By assigning different classes of service and Quality of Service parameters, MPLS ensures that voice and video applications receive the bandwidth and low latency they demand. This versatility allows businesses to seamlessly integrate various applications while maintaining optimal performance and user experience.


When it comes to MPLS vs. SD-WAN, the verdict is generally contingent upon a business’s unique preferences, budgetary constraints, and network demands. Still, the process can go much smoother with a strong understanding of the differences between SD-WAN and MPLS, as this will make the ideal choice that much clearer. Be sure to take such considerations into account when selecting one of these multifunctional systems for your business’s network. Contact our team for any questions!