How to compare MPLS suppliers
It can be daunting to consider who to choose for your next WAN. MPLS networks have been with us for many years, but they remain difficult to compare. This is partly because they're not all specified in the same way. Even more important is that the things that make a real difference to you are often not clear from (or included in) the specifications.
We have found that there are a few common issues that cause the most grief with an MPLS network. If you can get those right then you stand a chance of having a good experience with your next WAN, so it makes sense to consider potential MPLS suppliers in light of these challenges.
Look out for a downloadable spreadsheet link below. This spreadsheet provides questions and context to help you evaluate providers.
One last point...
If you're looking for a VPLS provider, (aka an e-lan provider) or even e-line then the information below is just as relevant!
How to choose the best MPLS provider
Here are some key questions to ask in order to choose an MPLS provider (or indeed, any WAN provider). Some of these relate particularly to Managed MPLS providers. However, they are still helpful if you're looking for a wires-only provider, because you will still need a supplier who is sensitive to, and can help with, these issues.
- Do they design around end-user experience?
- Do they offer Hybrid networks?
- How long do they take to connect new sites?
- Do they deliver 'Right First Time'?
- Can they see the whole application path, to identify and solve problems quickly?
- Are they easy to do business with?
- Do their customers like them?
- Are they also a Managed Network Provider?
- Can they offer SD WAN?
1. Do they design around user experience?
There is more to delivering an MPLS network than simply providing the circuits. Network performance is critical for the responsive applications that your users need to run your business, but many suppliers struggle to deliver performance beyond the systems they have sold.
You run a WAN so that your people can run applications, but you only get the benefits of the applications if they perform well for your users. So if your new MPLS network is to give you what you want, you’ll need to design it to support the users, the applications they’re using and your priorities.
Here are some questions you might ask:
- Do you design around the users, the applications they run and the bandwidth requirement that each has, so I can be confident that my users will get the performance they need?
- Do you check how your MPLS design will integrate with my existing infrastructure?
- Will you monitor and manage any circuits and devices that you have not provided, to ensure you can give a single view of your whole network (which is vital for driving performance)?
2. Do they offer Hybrid Networks?
Users want great performance from their applications, whether they’re in the HQ, a branch office or on the move. They are not concerned that some of your sites are in far-flung places, that you need to add or move sites at short notice, and that you have a budget. They expect you to maintain application performance and availability regardless.
That's hard to deliver with a single technology and supplier, which is why many IT teams construct a hybrid network that integrates multiple technologies and carriers. Hybrid networks help improve performance, deployment speed and cost.
We can illustrate the benefit of a hybrid network by considering deployment. Deployment is a major irritation for the IT team, which often faces considerable hurdles delivering new sites on time.
If you compare MPLS providers, you will find that there is a wide range of deployment lead times for the same circuit types. One supplier might publish a 67 working day lead time for a fibre circuit while another might quote 100 days for the same thing. If your network can blend circuits from multiple carriers then you can make significant improvements in your deployment speed.
Similar variances can be found when comparing different technologies. For example, that 67 day lead time for an MPLS circuit might only be 33 for a VPLS circuit from a different supplier. So again, if your network can accommodate MPLS and VPLS then you can make significant improvements in your deployment speed.
Networks are generally a compromise between competing needs for performance, reliability, deployment speed, manageability and price. Hybrid networks that allow you to blend multiple providers and technologies will be better placed to meet all of your needs in all your locations, anywhere in the world.
So, ask your candidate MPLS providers whether they will offer a hybrid network to match your speed, reliability and cost priorities to what is available at each location.
3. How long do they take to connect new sites?
Businesses usually need sites deployed quickly, but most fixed line technologies take months to deliver and unexpected delays wreak havoc with plans.
What's more different carriers have wildly differing delivery times. To illustrate, see if you can guess how long it takes to install a fibre Ethernet circuit in the UK:
You may have noticed that one of those times (2 days) was markedly shorter than others. How is that possible?
Yes - it is possible to deliver circuits within a few days, using 4G Services. Many of our customers use our multi-SIM, multi-carrier 4G Rapid Site Deployment services to do just that.
But is that relevant to sites with large numbers of users? Surely it can't be fast enough?
Well if it's done properly it can support hundreds of users. See our guide to 4G WAN for more details. However, few MPLS providers are able to do this, so check whether they can before you short-list.
Here are a few questions to ask:
- What is your published lead time for fibre circuits?
- Do you offer rapid site deployment using 4G?
- Do you offer multi-SIM and multi-carrier to provide performance for multiple users?
- Do you offer both WAN and Internet options?
- What is your lead time for 4G? (It should be no more than a few days)
- Is that lead time from when you're first engaged, or from when an order is taken?
- Can you seamlessly migrate from 4G to the fixed circuit when that is eventually delivered?
4. Do they deliver right first time?
When you buy a new MPLS network there are many things that can take longer or be more problematic than you anticipated (or hoped).
The requirements of your network are often unclear without auditing the network and carefully analysing your planned applications. Deploying the network then requires a blend of planning and technical skills. Long-established MPLS suppliers can have complex legacy processes with a huge number of steps that increase the chance of issues. Sometimes there are multiple disparate processes and systems, with re-keying of information. Sometimes the size of the organisation makes it difficult to find people who know what's going on from end to end.
However, it is possible to limit pitfalls if you ask pertinent questions beforehand. Here are a few you might use:
- Do you have a published engagement process?
- Do you provide an SoR?
- Do you have an end-to-end digital supply chain to prevent re-keying of information?
- Do you capture and publish images of each installation to aid future troubleshooting?
- Can you name the Project Manager who would be allocated to me?
- Can you provide delivery guarantees?
See this post for more ideas about finding the best managed network provider.
5. Can they see the whole application path, to identify and solve problems quickly?
Most suppliers can see when a link is down. Some can see when it's over-utilised. However, when you have an application issue, what you really need is to be able to see which application, user or device is the root cause of the problem, and then follow the path of the application across the network.
You need to be able to get right to the heart of the problem, even when it is not with the network. The best MPLS providers should help you do this.
What does good look like?
Here's an example of the sort monitoring portal you might seek:
Is it sufficient to have a monitoring portal?
Well no, not really. You need more.
Since the only reason you have a WAN is to help deliver applications to your users, it's vital that these applications perform well. However, finding the cause of a poorly-performing application can be extremely difficult. It can be very difficult to see what's going on within a mass of performance data.
How do you achieve it?
A critical feature of an MPLS WAN is that your provider can help you see the wood for the trees using tools such as Critical Path Monitoring. Here's an example of ours:
So, with this in mind, here are some questions you might ask:
- Do you provide monitoring of the MPLS network?
- Do you provide proactive monitoring?
- What proportion of issues do you expect to flag proactively (aim for 95%)
- Do you support the entire application path or just the devices you've sold?
- Can you add applications, databases, servers and LAN for example?
- How do you work with other resolver groups?
- Do you triage problems that arise?
- Can you work with other resolver groups to solve problems that may not be caused by the WAN
- Do you remain accountable back to the customer while working with such resolver groups?
- Do you provide a detailed customer monitoring portal?
- Does it include the entire application path? (as above)
- Does it show tickets raised?
- Does it allow Critical Path Monitoring, with a simplified view of entire application stacks?
- Do you provide advanced reporting?
6. Are they easy to do business with?
The best MPLS providers will be easy to do business with, but not all seem to make life easy. Here are some questions you might ask them:
- What do you do to make it easy to do business with you?
- Can you show me examples of how you keep bureaucracy to a minimum?
- Can you show me how you make adding, removing and changing sites simple?
- How long does it take to request, price and order changes?
- How flexible are your terms and conditions?
- Do you offer co-terminus terms for all your sites?
- Do you ensure the whole network complies with a global standard (even if third parties are used)?
- Can you offer a complete service covering network, infrastructure and applications?
- Can you provide expert resource to help with issues that extend beyond my network?
- Will my account manager be a generalist or will he/she be highly experienced with MPLS and other WAN technologies?
7. Do their customers like them?
When you buy a new MPLS network you're going to be relying on it (and its supplier) for a long time. It's perhaps self-evident that it's important you like your supplier and can work well with them.
Your feelings towards a potential supplier are often a reflection of the experience you have with them. Thus, you may be able to anticipate how satisfied you would be with a supplier by gauging how well their existing customers like them. If other customers like them, there’s a good chance you will too. And vice versa.
How can you do that?
There are several ways, as shown in the following questions that you might ask them. For these questions, a supplier's readiness to answer, and the speed at which they answer, can be as insightful as the answer itself.
- How many references are you able to give me? (If it's less than three, there's a problem)
- How many of them will I be able to speak to (vs email)?
- How soon can you give them to me? (If it takes more than a couple of days, there's possibly a problem)
- Do you publish a Net Promoter Score (NPS) for your networking business?
- What is your NPS? It's generally considered good to have a score over 30. Ours is over 70, by the way ;-)
8. Are they also a managed network provider?
Many businesses buy a managed rather than 'wires only' network, since this avoids the cost of the skilled resource required to manage the WAN and to reach every site.
For those who would otherwise prefer to manage themselves, it may still be preferable to buy a managed network from a provider who's prepared to work alongside you as you manage the rest of the estate. For example, a managed WAN provider might allow your LAN devices, servers and applications to be monitored while you manage them. In this regard, they might act as a triage point and pass non-WAN faults to your resolver group while maintaining contact and support. It can also be reassuring to have a managed service provider on hand for when intractable performance problems (or worse) arise.
It may be prudent to assess a provider's ability to manage some or all of your estate, and to inter work with your teams. You can read more about managed network providers in this post: What does it take to be the best managed network provider (and why)?
9. Can they offer SD WAN ?
It's worth bearing in mind that an MPLS network is not the only option for your next WAN. You may find that a VPLS network or a hybrid network suits you better, for example.
Have you considered whether SD WAN might benefit you?
SD WAN can be considered as an overlay, and therefore as a complement rather than an alternative to MPLS, and you may want to explore how to make sure your next WAN is SD WAN ready. You can read more in our post: SD WAN vs MPLS: SD WAN will replace MPLS (and other myths).
So you should ask prospective suppliers whether they can provide you with an SD WAN network, and whether they understand the benefits you would seek to get.