Multiprotocol Label Switching (MPLS)

What is MPLS?

Multiprotocol label switching (MPLS) is a protocol designed to get packets of data to their destinations quickly and efficiently. In many ways, it is superior to regular Internet Protocol (IP) routing, which bounces data all over the internet before finally sending it to its final destination. MPLS sends the data along a predetermined path so it heads straight to its destination.

MPLS is “multiprotocol” in that it does not depend on any particular protocol to operate. It is an overlay, which enables it to forward a variety of different types of data, regardless of the protocol used to organize them. 

The “LS” in MPLS refers to the fact that MPLS routers form a label-switched path (LSP), which is a predetermined path that routes the traffic within the network. This results in better transmission and overall superior quality of service (QoS) when compared to regular IP routing. Some companies have—and continue to use—MPLS, particularly when a strong, uninterrupted connection is critical. Because MPLS reduces latency, it allows companies to execute smoother videoconferences or Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) calls, which depend on smooth, uninterrupted streams of data.

These objectives are similar to those of software-defined wide-area networking (SD-WAN). With an SD-WAN-powered connection, data is transferred more efficiently, producing smoother performance. For example, if a company wanted to ensure a smooth videoconference with several satellite offices or remote employees, they could use SD-WAN to make sure each video signal reaches everyone in the conference efficiently. Similar to MPLS, SD-WAN would produce an experience for the end-user with less latency while maintaining a higher resolution.

How an MPLS Network Works

MPLS is not a product or a service. Rather, it is a technique used to forward data to its destination. An MPLS system designates paths that send data between nodes instead of endpoints. As a packet first enters the network, it gets assigned to a forwarding equivalence class (FEC), which dictates how the data packet is forwarded. This is done by appending a bit sequence label to the packet. 

The bit sequence label acts like an address on an envelope that tells the data packet where to go. Packets with the same characteristics are associated with the same MPLS label and thus get forwarded using the same rules. As the data packet is forwarded from one router to the next, each router contains a table that tells it how to handle those specific types of packets.

In this way, data skips along short path labels instead of long network addresses. This can be done regardless of the underlying network protocols because MPLS is not limited to only handling one specific protocol. MPLS supports whichever access technology is used—T1/E1, frame relay, digital subscriber line (DSL), or asynchronous transfer mode (ATM).

Because each data packet has specific directions as to where it should go, MPLS can allow for lower latency and better quality of service for the end-user. 

Traditional IP routing can be compared to the current international airline system. If you want to fly from Belize to Boston, you may have to take one flight from Belize to Houston, Texas, another one to Newark, New Jersey, and yet another flight to Boston. Due to all of the transfers, the total trip can easily take over 24 hours.

With MPLS—and SD-WAN—it is like you are put on a private jet that follows its own, more efficient path. Likely, the jet could go straight from Belize to Boston. If the plane had to stop in the States, it would choose a spot along the way, such as North Carolina, not Houston which is hundreds of miles off course. 

When millions of packets of data travel all over the country, some are bound to suffer delays, resulting in latency and poor quality. When data comes with specific directions that send it along a more efficient path, the end-user gets better quality video and audio, as well as faster overall transmissions.

MPLS and the OSI Hierarchy

It is hard to fit MPLS neatly into the Open Systems Interconnection (OSI) seven-layer hierarchy. It fits somewhere between Layer 2 and Layer 3. This is because Layer 2 includes the data link involving devices such as switches, while Layer 3 refers to the network, which includes routers. MPLS is sometimes referred to as existing at “Level 2.5” because it is not a device that facilitates a data link (Layer 2), but it is also not a device like a router (Layer 3).

However, like the devices encapsulated in each layer, MPLS does facilitate the transfer of data, so some choose to give it its own layer, “2.5.” Because MPLS effectively sits “on top of” each node, sending data packets from one to the next, it acts much like a unique layer in the hierarchy, moving data from Layer 2 to Layer 3.

Is MPLS and Effective Networking Method?

MPLS, like all networking tools, has distinct advantages and drawbacks. Some of MPLS’s more compelling benefits can also be experienced using SD-WAN, helping administrators avoid some of MPLS’s weaknesses.

MPLS Pros

  1. Better performance: MPLS produces better performance than an older technology designed to perform a similar function, ATM. Asynchronous transfer modes first form virtual circuits between two endpoints, and after the circuit has been put in place, the data can be transferred. This worked well over a public switched telephone network (PSTN) and with integrated services digital network (ISDN), but MPLS works better with current IP technology.
  2. Better traffic management: MPLS ensures traffic on the network is sent to its destination efficiently. While it has an objective similar to that of a frame relay, it is more consistent when it comes to traffic management, resulting in less latency or packet loss.
  3. Improved security: Even though MPLS does not automatically come with its own security protocol, it is a virtual private network (VPN), which separates it from the public internet. Therefore, threats inherent to the public internet do not affect an MPLS system.

MPLS Cons

  1. Dependence on a carrier: With MPLS, you need a specific carrier to facilitate the system. If your carrier service disappoints and you decide to switch, your MPLS system may be compromised, requiring a redesign, extra work, and wasted time.  
  2. Expense: MPLS costs far more than other technologies like broadband. If an organization decides to use MPLS anyway, they would have to do a detailed cost analysis to make sure the benefits justify the extra expense.
  3. Lack of comprehensive coverage: An MPLS system is set up to serve a specific area with a limited number of end-users. Expanding the system to include a wider array of users or a broader service area would require an additional expense.

MPLS in the Current Tech Landscape

MPLS, while once one of the most effective solutions available, has been superseded by other technologies. The primary benefit of MPLS is when users connect, they enjoy strong connectivity with consistent performance. When data needs to be delivered quickly and without interruption, MPLS can do a very good job, but it is not the only player in the game.

For many businesses, a high-speed fiber connection over a regular public network often gives them the performance they need. In the 1990s when MPLS was invented, high-speed, consistent connections were not as common as they are today. However, even modern public internet solutions have their limitations. They may experience lag due to increased traffic or other bandwidth demands. This is where SD-WAN comes into play.

Because SD-WAN provides a network of encrypted routing paths, it is in a good position to replace MPLS in the vast majority of situations. SD-WAN already optimizes the transfer of data, directing packets to their destinations in a more efficient manner. Therefore, SD-WAN is often a more-than-sufficient solution.

Many companies have switched from MPLS to SD-WAN because the latter delivers all the benefits of MPLS without the extra cost. An organization can choose an SD-WAN system that suits their needs while reaping the same advantages of MPLS. Here are some of the ways SD-WAN outshines MPLS:

  1. Protects your network from threats that MPLS cannot: An SD-WAN system can come equipped with threat detection and suppression measures to secure your network.
  2. Better visibility: SD-WAN systems provide full visibility of all the users and devices on the network. Enhanced visibility makes the network easier to manage and keep secure.
  3. Can cost less: A hub-and-spoke WAN model with MPLS connections requires data to be sent to the data center, where it is processed and redistributed. This is a costly solution. SD-WAN’s multipoint connectivity better manages traffic using a combination of cloud and internet resources, saving the organization money in the process.
  4. Has better overall performance: Even though MPLS delivers consistent performance, it often cannot handle some of the heavier lifting that results from modern network traffic. An organization can lease extra MPLS bandwidth to handle an increased load, but when the load is normal, the leasing fees are, essentially, wasted money. SD-WAN, on the other hand, can adapt bandwidth according to changing conditions.

Click here for more information about the differences between SD-WAN and MPLS

At the end of the day, SD-WAN provides a more efficient, less expensive experience for users on your network. Fortinet has reliable, secure options to help you improve networking performance with SD-WAN.