Are Coming Your Way
How networks based on Multi-Protocol
Label Switching work and what they can do.
By: John Shepler
MPLS networking doesn't get quite the same hoopla
as IP networking, but it's quietly growing by leaps and bounds.
If not already, MPLS may soon be part of your network strategy.
Here's the how and why.
What is MPLS?
MPLS stands for Multi-Protocol Label Switching. The multi-protocol
part gives you an idea of how versatile this type of network
is. Like IP or Internet Protocol networks, you need a special
setup for MPLS. Of course the same is true for SONET, ATM, Frame
Relay and other network protocols. MPLS tries to work with all
of these other protocols, mostly by encapsulating them in its
own tunnels. Why? To add speed and features that you might not
The way this works is that your packets
enter the MPLS network through an ingress router that is also
known as a tag router. Think of the MPLS network as a sovereign
nation and the ingress routers as the customs checkpoints where
you enter the country. To get out, you need to pass through an
egress router. While you are traversing the network you are routed
by tag switches also called label switch routers. It is important
to note that your data packets will be the same when they leave
the network as when they entered. In between, they will be in
the MPLS protocol.
How Does This Compare to Tunneling?
If this sounds a little like VPN tunneling, it actually is. Instead
of encrypting the packets, MPLS adds a 32 bit tag to the packet
headers. The ingress router examines the desired destination
address and creates a tag that chooses a virtual circuit or label
switch path for that packet. The ingress router will also assign
quality of service requirements to the tag. From that point on,
the tag switches look only at the tags to determine how to forward
the packet. There may be multiple routes available for each label
switch path so that the tag switches can manage outages, congestion
and differentiated services. At the egress point, the MPLS tag
is removed before sending the packets on their way.
Why go to all this trouble? For one thing,
processing the relatively small tags is much faster than having
to deal with larger headers at each router. For another, the
MPLS network can be designed to provide more bandwidth or shorter
latency paths for voice packets in VoIP telephone systems. Video
packets really need lots of bandwidth available, so you don't
want them crammed into paths where computers are backing up large
databases. At the very least, voice and video need priorities
to commandeer the bandwidth they need to maintain quality service.
Most electronic data interchange isn't quite so sensitive.
Where will you find MPLS networks?
Most major carriers now have them or soon will, perhaps as their
primary backbone. Network traffic is evolving from time insensitive
data transfers to time critical voice streams that are leaving
the traditional public telephone network. Experience shows that
just piling voice traffic on top of data traffic on wide area
networks can lead to poor voice quality and dropped calls. MPLS
supports traffic engineering needed to ensure that each type
of packet, including voice, video and data, gets the quality
ofservice it needs while on the network.
In fact, MPLS networks are now spreading
to include access networks and may eventually find their way
into your enterprise network. Service guarantees could be easier
to manage when it's MPLS from end to end.
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