Mobile workers and telecommuters are accessing applications and data remotely. Users are relying more heavily on Internet- and cloud-based services. And many organizations — including small businesses — are adding remote offices and branch locations so they can better serve customers and expand into new markets.

All of these trends have had an impact on the wide-area network (WAN). As traffic has increased, many organizations are finding that their WANs do not deliver the performance and bandwidth needed to meet today’s business requirements.

However, few business decision-makers are aware of what WAN connectivity options are available and how they compare. The following primer will provide you with a cheat-sheet the next time your telecom provider throws a bunch of arcane terms at you.

Traditionally, the WAN used dedicated leased-line connections from telcos to connect branch offices to headquarters. These circuits, including the venerable T1, are highly reliable and secure but have many drawbacks. Because they are based upon telephone technology, they force customers to purchase bandwidth in fixed increments. Upgrades typically require onsite configuration or equipment changes, and may take months to provision. Plus, leased lines tend to be very expensive.

A more flexible alternative is multiprotocol label switching (MPLS). MPLS is not a service but a technique for maximizing network performance and ensuring Quality of Service (QoS). Most Internet connections provide “best effort” service, which means that data may be delayed if there’s a lot of traffic. Data packets may even be dropped or delivered out of order. That’s fine if you’re checking email but not so good if you’re streaming video or using an IP phone. MPLS networks have the ability to give voice, video and other latency-sensitive applications a higher priority. MPLS services also provide more bandwidth than a T1 but can still be pretty expensive and difficult to implement.

Many small businesses use broadband Internet connections such as digital subscriber line (DSL) or cable, which are delivered via fiber-optic or coax networks. In the past, broadband provided only a low-speed, low-bandwidth connection. Today, however, these services can deliver higher speeds than leased lines for as little as half the cost. They are also available anywhere there’s Internet access. However, broadband Internet doesn’t provide the QoS needed for latency-sensitive applications, as we explained above. It’s also insecure, so remote users will need to connect via a virtual private network (VPN). More on that in a future post.

A newer alternative is Carrier Ethernet, which is offered by telcos and an increasing number of cable providers. Carrier Ethernet can be delivered over the same cabling as traditional telco circuits, yet provides more bandwidth at lower cost. Bandwidth can be scaled easily and granularly, and standards help ensure reliability and QoS. These features make Carrier Ethernet a good choice for high-bandwidth connections between data centers and disaster recovery facilities as well as for WANs that need optimum performance.

Whatever option you choose, it’s important to have a backup. Because most businesses are heavily reliant on Internet access, downtime due to a service provider outage could be devastating.

Dealing with telecom providers is never fun, and many business owners don’t know what to ask for. SSD is happy to help you review your WAN links and determine if different services might better meet your needs and budget.