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September 25, 2017
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MPLS Network Definition
What is an MPLS network, how does it work, and what applications does it support.

By: John Shepler

You often hear the term MPLS related to information technology in media reports and product announcements. Just what does MPLS mean and are you missing out by not investigating MPLS networks for your own business use?

What Does MPLS Mean?
MPLS is an acronym that stands for Multi-Protocol Label Switching. It's a WAN or Wide Area Networking technology based on label or tag switching development work conducted by Cisco and then made an industry standard by the IETF or Internet Engineering Task Force.

Why is MPLS Needed?
The goal of MPLS is to be able to transport any protocol through a wide area network and have it arrive unscathed. That's quite different from other networking standards, such as ATM, IP, T1, DS3, SONET, or Ethernet. Those networks have particular technology standards unique to their operation and require a protocol conversion to handle traffic from other types of networks. In addition, many legacy networks were deployed before the need for network convergence of voice, video and data. MPLS has controls for class of service built-in to make convergence easier to accomplish.

How Are MPLS Networks Organized?
MPLS networks are privately run networks, set up by large telecommunication carriers to handle their own traffic or offered to business and organization users by competitive service providers. They are "cloud" networks in that you have an access network connection to the cloud at each location you want to connect. Within the cloud, the service provider ensures that only the connections you define have access to your data and that your traffic has the bandwidth, latency, jitter and packet loss characteristics to ensure high quality transmission.

Just How Do MPLS Networks Work?
MPLS networks are packet-switched, like IP, rather than the traditional circuit switched network used by the public telephone system. Label switching is used instead of packet routing and switching within the network. Each packet is inspected by a Label Edge Router as it enters the network. An MPLS label is added to the packet at that point to define its destination and the class of service it should receive. All voice packets, for instance, are treated the same but they get special treatment based on their real-time nature compared to general data packets. These tags form a wrapper or encapsulation of the original data as it travels through the MPLS network. In essence, they create a VPN or virtually private network for your traffic within the larger cloud. The labels are removed when the packets leave the network, restoring each packet to its original state.

When are MPLS Networks The Right Choice?
MPLS has become the technology of choice for many network service providers. It has almost completely replaced Frame Relay, an earlier networking technology used to connect multiple locations through a private WAN network. As a cloud network, any-to-any connectivity can be established, making MPLS the cost effective way to tie multiple locations. You can use it to replace simple point to point data connections or create a fully meshed network that encompasses dozens, hundreds or even thousands of branch offices, retail outlets, warehouses, medical centers and other locations. The QoS or quality of service provisions offered by MPLS make it a good choice for PBX telephone and enterprise VoIP, along with video conferencing.

How Cost Effective is MPLS?
Chances are that an MPLS network will be far more cost effective than proprietary corporate WANs constructed from point to point dedicated line connections. Upgrading from Frame Relay to MPLS is also likely to save you money, while offering higher bandwidth options.

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