How to procure managed MPLS services?
When IT Managers look to outsource their managed WAN requirements there's more to consider than ever before in 2019. Whereas even five years ago managed MPLS could be bought in isolation, the job of IT Managers and their teams has markedly changed.
In order to successfully evaluate MPLS or SD WAN providers, there's a need to consider security and public/private cloud access. In addition, there's the usual need to evaluate delivery, migration, technical design authority, application performance, support, business continuity. I could go further.
The Key aspects of Network Procurement
The key approach for any company (Enterprise or otherwise) has to revolve around aligning the specifics of your organisation regarding strategy, technical, applications, security and process to your budget. IT teams occasionally only concentrate on the technical features and benefits of sending data from one end point to another. This, though, is less than ideal. In order to ensure successful procurement of your next WAN, a repeatable and consistent process is required to outline requirements.
With a good set of requirements, you will be able to force transparency and ensure your specific business is well aligned to your WAN provider of choice. As a quick example, imagine putting in place a solution which contains a single point of failure in a site which is critical to your business. Or, buying a WAN which does not have connectivity in a particular region of the world within which your business is expanding.
If you were to analyse the failure of Enterprise MPLS services, you’d quickly establish that there is a broad based spectrum of reasons for why issues occur from delays through to catastrophic problems. And, we’ve seen them all. To give you an exact example, we worked with a company this year which was using one of the most recognisable Global providers in the market.
The problems they experienced were simply stunning. They ranged from incorrect billing and poor support through to every error imaginable with their quality of service configuration. The company has now moved provider and has not looked back but the impacts from the original 'poor decision' are still there. Upper management are still mentioning: “That network which we spent thousands which wasn't supported correctly and didn’t work.
Selecting your Managed Service - Networks Design, Applications, Topology and VPLS, MPLS circuit business continuity
We started with strategy because design means nothing without understanding the business drivers behind the project.
Each and every managed MPLS service we work with has one goal, to help the company conduct business using their networks data transmission capability. The fundamental challenges we’ve witnessed in the past still exist today and yet, the amount of networks which fundamentally don’t meet technology requirements are vast.
Using real world examples, we recommend IT Management focus on:
- How to build high availability MPLS services access for data and layer 3 packet or layer 2 switched capability with no single point of failure - there are scenario’s where sometimes this is simply not possible.
- How to understand a networks traffic application packet performance from the perspective of latency, uptime and bandwidth usage including voice and video.
- Consider traffic security particular to your organisation – e.g. A financial institution would require a higher security level than is normally accepted.
- Consider your prospective MPLS services scalability and access to the cloud – how the solution meets business growth requirements. This information is taken from the strategy.
- Analyse which product might be more suitable, – e.g. layer 3 MPLS vs layer 2 VPLS, Point to Point, Point to Multipoint circuits. The normal outcome is a hybrid of services based upon a cloud model
- Ensuring every solution has excellent support
Every solution we consider should align to the business including the capability to run applications and meet objectives. At the same time, we need to operate within management business constraints which include budgets, limited employee resources and tight timeframes.
Good network design should meet requirements across access, technical, traffic scalability, affordability, security, support and manageability. Our approach to MPLS Network network design is iterative. We try to avoid getting bogged down in the details of technology and packets too quickly, obtaining an overall view of the network determines which areas require the focus. We understand some clients have a requirement for fast turnaround of a proposal and therefore there simply isn’t time to comprehensively cover off every single area. At a base level, you need to ensure requirements are understood to avoid future, in contract, issues and problems.
MPLS Providers - VPN Delivery and Migration support
VPN Delivery and Migration support VPN Delivery is one of the key areas where companies sight their reasons for ‘no action’. We are not project managers but we know that unrealistic delivery deadlines are far too common and companies show reluctance to change because providers are notorious when it comes to delivery. With consideration of any managed MPLS services, you’ll need to think about the available resource to project manage the delivery of your WAN. The delivery of an easy to understand but a thorough statement of requirements is very important.
With this kind of documentation, you will easily be able to inform the project management team where the risks exist and where areas of concern reside. With the above in mind, consider whether or not your WAN project is deliverable using standard processes, do the timescales look realistic? What kind of audit trail exists to be sure you are ticking off each area moving forward.
As the project progresses, one of the other key importance areas resides in the management of acceptance testing and planning. Throughout all of the process we talk about in the mindmap, ultimately the capability should deliver at a base level which is why we recommend and talk about a test plan. We also share this plan with you for your use.
VPN traffic Service Level Guarantee (SLA), a commercial feature, not technical
Our MPLS providers Mindmap details the important aspects of MPLS services vs SLA - the estimated performance of each packet from your network and routers uptime through to migration. We discuss latency, uptime, delivery, support and mean time to repair.
Any WAN solution should never be engineered based on an SLA – this is because any Virtual Private Network SLA is a commercial agreement and does not consider the granular detail of per packet performance. An SLA is an average of packet performance. Receiving service credits is small consolation if your connectivity is down for an extended period of time.
This said, an SLA is a good indication of technology capability and overall, where the provider feels their strengths and weaknesses exist. As an example, the latency SLA between two global locations defines the kind of performance you might expect as a worst case scenario. Local loop tail circuit access will impact traffic performance and will not be factored into any SLA. Access is particularly important when deploying global networks since extended local loop access may stop video and voice from performing well even though the core SLA suggests you are within limits.
Virtual Private Networks, Management of Contracts, their often restrictive nature
Consideration of MPLS provider contracts is dependent largely on the kind of business sector you operate within. Clearly, legal contracts are important and every business should review legal detail because you need to be aware of restrictions and impact to change. However, some sectors will be subject to real problems if the contract is standard and not amended.
For example, imagine a building company which requires connectivity for short term contracts. The standard managed service provider contracts often have a minimum term of 12 months so if 25% of your estate is only required for 6 months at a time, there would be serious consequences to restrictive contracts. We discuss how contract negotiation is possible and where you might want to focus depending on your sector type.
Completing due diligence and good practice throughout contract
We must not forget post contract activities. Many of the problems we witness relate to poor due diligence throughout contract.
Aspects such as documentation are not kept up to date, regular checks on application performance are missed and new enhancements and associated value add WAN products are often not reviewed.
Within the mindmap, we talk about fostering a due diligence approach and how to ask whether or not the Virtual Private Network telco / carrier / provider will support an environment of good practice. We consider all MPLS provider elements even down to where documentation is stored. An environment where multiple versions of the same document exists is an issue.
Managed MPLS Providers Wide Area Networks and Statistics / trend reporting
The statistics available these days are generally good enough these days to provide a general overview of VPN packet and data usage.
However, there are other elements we recommend which include packet jitter, latency and application performance. With networks becoming more sophisticated, it is now possible to understand an individual applications performance during the forwarding of packets across a network.
As an example, Voice is an application which you would want to monitor on a constant basis and flag up issues as they occur. Some statistics packages are sophisticated enough to provide MOS scoring (Mean Opinion Score) in order for you to track average voice quality. We’ll talk you through some of the technology trends we’ve seen with statistics reporting.
MPLS Order management ensuring validation occurs
With all the value we discuss, it would be a shame if orders were entered incorrectly when being placed on the providers system. And yet, we see this occur on a regular basis. We talked about the client which had experienced serious issues with their MPLS Network provider, these issues occurred from the start when detail was translated badly onto the service providers systems.
Budget, commercials and achieving a great proposal
The commercial considerations when selecting managed MPLS VPN services are linked with the Network design which, as we’ve mentioned, should include business elements. We discussed that there is simply no point in designing a solution which contains no single point of failure or a huge amount of bandwidth if there simply is no chance of signing off the circuit costs / pricing within the business. At a base level, there will be a minimum set of requirements to work from but you should also document where further value might be added vs additional budget. In many instances, spending more on particular features might save money in other areas. An example of this is video conferencing – designing a network which supports video (and the associated properties of delay sensitive packets) will perhaps result in less travel expenditure and save the business money - great for the environment.
The mindmap covers some areas which we know are important when obtaining the best possible costs from companies such as BT. The sales managers from the services provider will take seriously a design which is well thought out and defined. The knock on effect of this is the pricing departments within the service providers are much more motivated to provide the best possible pricing based on the fact the requirement is serious. Prospective carriers / telcos will not pay too much attention, other than a generic circuit quotation, to prospects which simply provide a weak requirements document with a spreadsheet full of addresses.
Remember, your MPLS services from a commercial perspective must be aligned to a fit for purpose capability. A well governed organisation which will always achieve a certain profit – the deal has to be right for their business as well as the prospect.
However, there are service providers which discount and do whatever it takes to win business. Whilst some organisations might feel that this is great, be aware that low profitability for the service provider may well impact service levels throughout contract. We’ve often witnessed major issues occur during contract where the provider has not tried as hard as they might since the money they are making is particularly low.
MPLS providers and Cloud based access and Internet services
The future of networking is being changed by cloud based services. With the buzz disappearing, the market place is defining excellent products to help users maximise their connectivity in terms of productivity.
Clearly the cloud is reliant on the underlying VPN or Internet access in place to determine performance and, in this respect, an organisations connectivity is the critical component. Adopting a cloud based model requires a fundamental shift in architecture as consideration must be given to location, regulation, storage, backup, scalability and so forth. In general, the work required is to ensure the cloud does not operate within a silo and is procured in parallel to the WAN. MPLS, VPLS and Internet are indeed considered cloud based services.
Multi Protocol Label Switching. The MPLS protocol defines a process by which core network providers traffic engineer their infrastructure based on optimal use of packet forwarding paths and routing. At a high level, label switching allows routers (via the packet header data) to make routing decisions quickly by examining the packets header label rather than performing an entire lookup of the routing table which adds delay. Each packet is forwarded to a pre-determined LSP - Label Switched Path (know and LSPs). Alternative LSPs are made available for traffic packet routing forwarding in the event packets cannot reach the designated route.
Labels are assigned to the header (using Cisco routers as an example) by use of the LDP protocol (Label Distribution Protocol) which enables LSR (Label Switched Routers) to actually exchange the labels information when sending packets on a hop by hop basis. Without an LDP protocol, there would be no means of releasing a labels important information to other routers within the network. The protocol allows discovery of other peer routers together with the ability to exchange a labels information. Ultimately, the LDP really is the building blocks for MPLS service routing and VPNs.
Managed MPLS services are inherently secure due when talking about private VPN services. Each provider customer VPN is secured by use of separated routing tables (VRF - Virtual Router Forwarding table). As label switching occurs, traffic is only sent into a particular clients VPN.
VPLS offers the capability to extend LAN capability across geographical distance. When organisations operate protocols which are not supported by layer 3 VPN services, a layer 2 VPLS product will allow an organisation to control layer 3 protocols and their distribution. We have written several articles on VPLS, at a high level and company with a requirement to simplify their network into LAN segments should consider products. There are numerous reasons why this might a requirement.
When investigating managed MPLS solutions for Global and UK connectivity, our Mindmap will show you, step by step, the key areas to consider. IT Managers & Directors need to operate within business constraints which include budgets, limited employee resources and tight timeframes.
Our MPLS Providers mindmap is focussed on those companies which wish to procure a fit for purpose VPLS (Virtual Private LAN Service) or managed MPLS (Multi Protocol Label Switching) solution (managed router or unmanaged) across UK and Global services including the Internet where required.
More than this, it is for companies which have faced problems with their previous supplier, some frustrating, and some which create a serious impact. We’ve created the mindmap as a great way to tick off each key important procurement area as you make your way through managed supplier selection.
You’ll be able to tick off each MPLS & VPLS buying area as you follow through, moving across the solutions procurement process, and we’ll demonstrate how to create a statement of requirements which you can deliver back into your business showing you have completed tremendous due diligence when selecting MPLS VPN services.
The WAN sales process is often driven by the provider, telco or carrier and is generally full of features and benefits. Within our mindmap, the content will help you ensure the right design and solution is put in place vs the specifics of your business and, as a result, force transparency within the sales process.
In addition, we’ll show you how to achieve excellent data commercials from whichever managed MPLS services provider you are considering. IT refer to MPLS providers layer 3 routed networks as MPLS. The correct term is actually VPRn (Virtual Private Routed Network). An MPLS VPN defines a means by which traffic engineering is performed on a providers core network - labels are used to inform a packet on which route (hop by hop) to take across the network cloud.
Each label and packet belongs to a label switched path (LSP) allowing carriers to scale their network correctly and efficiently process data. The VPN is available with a managed router or unmanaged where an organisation either provides their own router or uses a 3rd party for router support and management.
Interested in learning more?
Packet - A Cisco article on packet switching
Legacy services - ATM (Asynchronous Transfer Mode) and Frame Relay. ATM was one of the first WAN services to introduce the concept of QoS (Quality of Service) by use of VRBr, ABR which aligns to current CoS (Class of Service) policies found in MPLS and VPLS networks today.
Multiprotocol LSPs - An article on packet forwarding / switching across label switched paths.
Multiprotocol PE - Provider Edge routers - LSPs are run between PE to PE devices.
CE - Customer Edge routers - The customer edge CE routers do not run MPLS. The LSPs are operated across traffic between PE to PE routers.
Routing - A cisco article, a routing handbook.
Internet IPSec VPNs - Cisco article on IPSec
VPN Switching - An overview of switching from Cisco vs layer 3 routing.
Layer 2 VPNs - More detail on layer 2 of the OSI model
Layer 3 VPNs - More detail on layer 3 of the OSI model
GMPLS - GMPLS (General MPLS)
Packet header - an article explaining packet headers.
About Robert Sturt
Managing Director of an authorised BT Business Partnership with a focus on assisting Global and UK Enterprise and Medium organisations with BT WAN procurement. Responsible for creating workflows which align the specifics of an organisations business strategy and technical requirements to the BT portfolio of connectivity.