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What Is the Difference Between SD-WAN and MPLS?

What Is the Difference Between SD-WAN and MPLS?

If you aren’t familiar with either of these terms, you are probably full of questions right now. A lot of people don’t understand the difference between MPLS and SD-WAN, so let’s start at the beginning. Both of these things are specific types of network connections, each of which has specific pros and cons. While these protocols perform much the same function (which is facilitating efficient network connections), they accomplish their goals using two different methods.

What Is MPLS Protocol?

MPLS stands for “Multi-Protocol Label Switching.” This is a traditional method of routing network traffic. In general, it is used for semi-closed enterprise networks. Because this network is still connected to the public web, it does not fit the definition of an intranet, but it’s not completely public, either. Basically, MPLS uses special packet headers to direct internet traffic in an efficient way. When you are only trying to create connectivity between certain physical locations, this tends to result in better network speed (i.e., less latency).

To explain the “packet headers” concept: All internet traffic comes in the form of small “packets.” Each of these contains a small amount of data, allowing networks and machines to process the network in small increments. This is essential because of the inherent size of the internet. If the data were not broken up into very small units, it would be too much for any computer to handle.

Most packets will have a “header” that tells the network where it’s supposed to go. When you are using the MPLS protocol, all the packets will have a special header that keeps all the data streamlined for your network. For example, the home office might act as the central connection point, while all the smaller regional offices might act as “nodes.”

What Is SD-WAN Protocol?

SD-WAN stands for “Software-Defined Wide-Area Network.” It is used to create interconnected enterprise networks in the same way that MPLS has been doing for several decades. However, SD-WAN is much more practical for wireless networks. Using this kind of technology, a wireless area network (WAN) can be extended greatly, allowing distant places to be connected to the same network with ease.

SD-WAN connections also have a couple of security advantages over MPLS. MPLS protocol doesn’t really have any built-in security, so it’s all up to the user to provide that. That being said, the closed nature of the network does provide a little bit of security in itself. SD-WAN networks, on the other hand, tend to be built with security in mind. These networks use virtualization to effectively “sandbox” certain functions, which helps to protect the physical system from intrusion and/or sabotage.

A lot of larger companies are going with SD-WAN networks because its virtualization allows them to save money. When you use virtual machines rather than physical ones, you don’t have to buy as much hardware. With a traditional MPLS network, you would have to spend a lot more on equipment at each node location. Although you need high-quality servers and other network hardware for an SD-WAN connection, you won’t need nearly as much hardware overall.

The Pros And Cons

The first thing that you need to understand is this: SD-WAN does not work as well when used alone. Most people report that it’s best to use MPLS and SD-WAN together. The simple reason is the fact that MPLS is simpler and more efficient, leading to less latency. Because it makes heavy use of virtual machines (which tend to be slower), SD-WAN might not be able to handle your data requirements when used alone.

On the other hand, using SD-WAN as an overlay to your MPLS setup seems to work a lot better. You can configure just about any type of connection to make use of an SD-WAN service, including an MPLS connection. The key lies in finding the right mix of each.

In spite of its reliance on its rival, SD-WAN is not without some serious advantages. First of all, these networks are generally encrypted from end to end. Second of all, they offer real-time management of network traffic, something that MPLS doesn’t offer. Lower cost and easier scaling are also big advantages that make SD-WAN an appealing option.

On the other hand, MPLS offers a simpler and more reliable service. Traffic is pretty much isolated within your nodes, and packets are routed in a very quick and direct manner. This is especially good when you are streaming a video or doing a live chat. This is a result of the “label switching” implied in the name of this protocol. The packet headers are switched and replaced as needed, mainly so that they will take the most direct route to their destination.


So, since we have thrown a lot of technical concepts at you, it might be best to recap our findings. Let’s hit the key concepts one more time.

  • MPLS networks use only physical hardware, while SD-WAN connections use virtual machines
  • MPLS and SD-WAN are both used to create semi-private enterprise networks
  • Both of these connection types can be equally secure if configured properly
  • It is probably best to use these two technologies together
  • SD-WAN offers lower costs, easy scalability, and real-time control of network traffic
  • MPLS offers a simple, reliable network model with a proven track record
  • SD-WAN might not be fast enough when used alone
  • MPLS networks are less practical for wireless and cloud networks


Obviously, both of these network solutions will require the right provider. Luckily for you, you’ve come to the right place. If you need an MPLS network, SD-WAN services, local managed IT services, or just small business computer support in general, PCH Technologies can help. We offer competitive pricing and the highest quality around. If you would like to know more, feel free to call us at (856) 754-7500.