If you are reading this then you probably have some involvement in how your organisation connects its various sites and users to the corporate network. Whatever WAN technology you are using, it is likely that you have been told that multi-protocol label switching (MPLS) is the preferred method to deliver connectivity for your organisation. This article takes a look at the perceived need for MPLS, giving you an objective view that will enable you to choose what your organisation actually needs rather than what you’ve been told.
So what is MPLS and why do so many people think it is the only way to provide a business-level WAN solution? MPLS does exactly as its name implies. It provides a protocol agnostic, data-carrying mechanism that is highly scalable, allowing service providers to create end-to-end circuits across any type of transport medium using any protocol. With an MPLS network, data packets are assigned labels. Packet-forwarding decisions and QoS priorities are made solely on the contents of this label, without the need to examine the packet itself.
So why do I need it?
MPLS sounds ideal. However, in many cases what you need is not MPLS itself but the features and benefits that MPLS provides, such as:
- Flexibility – providing any-to-any, end-to-end connectivity within your WAN using different transport technologies based on each site’s requirements.
- Security – ensuring a private WAN, monitored and controlled by the service provider.
- Scalability and reach – allowing connectivity ranging from 64Kbps to 10Gbps using various access options alongside UK and international coverage.
- Converged network – the ability to support voice, multi-media and data traffic with QoS mechanisms, ensuring bandwidth and priority SLAs are maintained.
- Fully managed – core network and edge connectivity devices can be managed and monitored by the service provider around the clock.
- Guaranteed performance – MPLS networks are designed for businesses and the transport of mission-critical data. Service level guarantees provide a predictable level of service and ensure that latency and jitter are maintained within acceptable parameters.
Is MPLS the only solution with these features?
The simple answer is only MPLS delivers MPLS. However, other solutions are available that deliver the features of MPLS but at a lower cost and these frequently have additional services that can be bolted on.
If you are either a large service provider or a very large organisation with earlier ATM or Ethernet technologies and need to scale to unlimited end-users then MPLS is a wise decision. If you are looking for connectivity solutions for multiple sites and users then other no-compromise alternatives are available and have been for many years.
What are the alternatives?
The communications sector has always been dominated by large telcos with big-budget solutions for providing next generation and MPLS network solutions which have been marketed as the only way forward. But as well as MPLS, there has always also been the option to continue using the more traditional VPN-based solutions, allowing smaller communication providers to provide connectivity solutions.
However, traditional VPN solutions do not have the required features of a next-generation network infrastructure so some of the smaller communication providers have created hybrid solutions capable of delivering the high-level features of MPLS without needing to implement a complete MPLS infrastructure.
From an end-user’s perspective, you still get a network solution with the same business benefits as MPLS but at a much lower cost. These hybrid solutions can also offer more extensive management capabilities consisting of reporting, trend analysis, network management and proactive monitoring.
Can cheaper, non-MPLS solutions really deliver?
Yes, based on the results of real-world application and end-user feedback rather than technical specifications and conjecture.
The advantages of using a smaller communication provider become apparent when looking at the additional flexibility and customisation that becomes possible for the end-user. The service is now tailored to the individual while still delivering the same features as MPLS and in many cases it is able to go further than MPLS through the inclusion of additional services and improved SLAs.
Making the right decision
You don’t need MPLS for connectivity but that doesn’t mean MPLS is wrong for your organisation. The simple fact is that you could provide the same level of service to your users, yet pay much less, if you consider some of the proven alternatives to MPLS. With austerity and savings being a significant consideration over the coming years there are many cost-effective alternatives. So, think about whether you need MPLS or a network solution that can provide you with the features to deliver a first-class service to your end-users while supporting your current and future business applications.
Jason Reid is head of technology at Network Resource Group.