Enterprise / Networking / WAN

WAN Product Types Explained

Rob Rodier
One of the biggest challenges that companies face when expanding to new locations or adding nodes to their network is maintaining reliable, secure connections. A wide area network (WAN) enables a business with multiple locations to connect with each other and the cloud / data center. It’s important to recognize, however, that branch offices, a chain of stores, healthcare satellite providers and other dispersed locations can choose from a variety of WAN product types. Although there are numerous options, these three are most common among modern enterprises.

Point-to-Point Connectivity
Point-to-point connections have been a go-to WAN product type for years. One example of a point-to-point WAN is a Layer 2 Ethernet line. These WANs are layer 2 circuits, which means data travels from one endpoint directly to the other, with no carrier routing. This feature of a point-to-point network gives users the benefits of bandwidth capabilities and low latency -- as low as 5 ms between endpoints located within the same region. Most carriers guarantee the performance of these WANS with a service level agreement (SLA) and by assigning preferred routes across the network. However, the customer is responsible for managing the network, including configuring, setting policies, traffic queueing, and managing the WAN.

Businesses can also choose wavelengths, a newer type of point-to-point connectivity that offers extremely high bandwidth – up to 100 Gbps. These WANs achieve that speed by multiplexing several optical carrier signals onto a single fiber using different wavelengths on the light spectrum. This WAN product type is growing in popularity, especially in the financial and technology sectors and among internet service providers (ISPs) due to benefits, including its ability to move a high traffic volume between facilities and the data center. It also makes data replication for backup and continued data accessibility easier. Carriers, such as Zayo, are building new wavelength routes to keep up with the demand for this service.

One drawback of point-to-point WANs is that for networks that connect multiple facilities in an any-to-any topology requires a “meshed” network. The layoutof these networks often looks like a star. This pattern enables direct transmission of data from point to point without requiring traffic to pass through a node to get to its destination. These configurations can be expensive due to the number of circuits needed, so in some cases, the business will choose a hub-and-spoke configuration in which a central location, or hub, hosts services and communicates with each remote site. Once past the hurdle of selecting the right network topology, however, point-to-point can be a good choice for organizations with high bandwidth and low latency requirements.

MPLS
Multiprotocol label switching (MPLS) is a carrier-managed, private network. Typically, the carrier owns the network, deploys routers, and manages policies for the customer. MPLS WANs are fully meshed, which means customers can choose how they prioritize and route traffic via its “any to any” topology. For example, the business can ensure VoIP calls take priority over email traffic or other data that isn’t as time-sensitive.

This WAN product type delivers extremely reliable connectivity. Moreover, carriers guarantee strict service levels for jitter, packet loss, and latency -- often less than 50 ms, which is an acceptable level of latency for all but the most demanding applications.
Although MPLS has a healthy list of pros, there are also cons. MPLS is expensive, and cost increases appear to be trending. MPLS can also make it difficult for a business to build redundancy into their networks because MPLS circuits need to be provided by the same carrier, in many cases doubling the cost.

Even though some people consider MPLS an aging WAN product type, banks, financial institutions, insurance companies and larger users in other regulated industries continue to rely on MPLS.

SD-WAN
Software-defined wide area networks (SD-WANs) are made up of two layers: the underlay and overlay networks. An SD-WAN’s underlay network consists of connection to the public internet and often leverages other WAN connections, such as MPLS, internet, fiber optic, or cellular networks. Companies can choose to use two or more connections to create redundancy, for example, using a cable and a telecommunications connection. Therefore, if one connection is disrupted, users can still communicate and access the data they need using the other.

The SD-WAN’s overlay network consists of multiple virtualized network layers that create any-to-any connectivity. Additionally, SD-WANs are designed so that if the underlay network switches to a different circuit due to an outage or interruption, the overlay network continues to run, creating high availability. SD-WAN gives users the ability to prioritize traffic; however, it’s not as predictable as MPLS since it uses the public internet. Latency, packet loss, and other performance metrics can’t be guaranteed over the public service. Some SD-WAN providers address this issue by integrating MPLS, specialized peering arrangements or other private line services into the SD-WAN, but this can add expense and complexity to the network.

One distinct advantage of this WAN product type is visibility into the network. The virtualized software layer enables deep insights into application and network utilization. This gives businesses the ability to monitor and correct problems with circuit quality, performance, and network bottlenecks.

SD-WAN also stands out from other WAN product types because it is the first to consider the public internet as a part of the network. It’s common for SD-WAN platforms to provide their own cloud networks, peered with major public clouds such as AWS, Software as a Service (SaaS) applications such as Salesforce, or VoIP providers. Direct peering closes the performance gap between SD-WAN and private networks with direct and consistent routing to create a competitive alternative.

WAN Product Types: Make an Intelligent Choice

Different WANs can address a range of needs, and in some instances, work together to create the optimal network for a business or enterprise. Educate your team about the WAN product types available, how they differ, and their pros and cons, so your team can move forward with confidence that the type of network you select is the optimal choice for your business. If ever interested in configuring a WAN to see what pricing and network specs would look like, simply click "Get Started" above :)

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