Your Guide to MPLS

Because the internet has been around for so long, it’s easy to become numb to it after a while. We have unlimited access to the world’s information, and thanks to modern technology, this data can be sent and received immediately.

At its core, that’s what the internet does – send and receive information. However, when it comes to how that data is transported, the details are crucial. Transfer speeds, cybersecurity, and points of access are all integral to the internet working effectively.

For the most part, people and companies are utilizing cloud technology to make this transfer of data faster and more efficient. After all, it’s so much easier to upload a file to Google Drive than it is to email it to yourself and then open the attachment.

That being said, cloud distribution (also called SD-WAN) isn’t the only way that data moves from one point to another. Today, we’re going to focus on technology that seems a bit outdated but can still be just as relevant as when it was created – MPLS. This guide will illustrate how MPLS works, it’s advantages and disadvantages, and why enterprises may want to keep it around for a while longer.

What is MPLS?

This acronym stands for multi-protocol label switching. By itself, that name may not mean anything. To fully understand what MPLS is and how it works, we need to dive deeper into the infrastructure of the internet itself. Put on your glasses and step into the WABAC machine as we enter the world of the early internet.

Routers, Packets, and Data, Oh My!

It can seem unfathomable now, but information used to take forever to move from one place to another online. Text could transfer okay, but anything complicated like pictures or video were a massive pain – if you could send them at all. In some cases, you might have been better off mailing photos or VHS tapes.

The way that the early internet worked was by sending data in packets through routers. This process required physical infrastructure; the routers interpreted the information and sent it through phone lines or copper cables to reach its final destination.

So why was this system so slow? Well, it’s because each router had to identify the packet it received, identify its endpoint, and then look up the optimal route to take to get there. If data was being sent across the street, this process could be fast. If it was going from one side of the country to the other, it could take hours. One of the primary bottlenecks was looking up other routers to see which one would be the most ideal for sending the packet to next. When data is coming in from a variety of sources (computers), the system could get bogged down quickly.

Fortunately, MPLS came along and changed all of that.

MPLS, the Map to Success

To alleviate the time-consuming process of data transfer, MPLS was designed to simplify everything by creating a label for each packet of information. The label was actually a forwarding equivalence class (FEC) that dictated the most efficient route. Routers didn’t have to do this individually – instead, they read the label and forwarded the packet as needed.

Forwarding equivalence classes could be created to handle different kinds of information. For example, if data was coming from a particular source (i.e., a business headquarters), it could be prioritized over other information coming through the system. Also, packets that had time-sensitive urgency (such as streaming video) could be put onto networks with low latency (lag).

The other primary benefit that MPLS brought to the table was it didn’t require any additional infrastructure or programming. Routers could simply read the label and send the data accordingly, all without having to reinvent the wheel to get there. Thus, MPLS could ride on the backbone of current internet infrastructure while providing better performance and reliability.

Anatomy of an MPLS Label

To further understand how this system works, let’s take a closer look at the way that these labels are constructed. Each one consists of four parts:

  • Label – all pertinent information is stored in this code
  • Experimental Bits – these bits are where hierarchies and priorities lie (i.e., sending video vs. text)
  • Bottom-of-Stack – this piece tells a router if it’s the endpoint for the packet
  • Time-to-Live – each label has a certain number of “hops” between routers before it dies

Another thing to keep in mind is that each label only works in one direction. So, for information to be sent back to the original source (or elsewhere), a new label has to be created every time.

Why MPLS Matters – Pros and Cons

Again, it’s easy to think that systems like MPLS are irrelevant in today’s cloud-based internet. However, just because the technology is old doesn’t mean it can’t be useful. In this section, we’ll go over the various advantages (and disadvantages) that comes from deploying MPLS.

Pros

  • Scalability – Because this system utilizes packets instead of hardware, you can scale up to meet demand relatively easily.
  • Bandwidth Efficiency – MPLS categorizes each packet based on predetermined hierarchies. Thus, data can be transmitted along the network more smoothly without creating backlogs or bottlenecks.
  • Better Uptime – since pathways can be optimized, you don’t need to worry about the network going down, creating lag.
  • Improved Service – data with higher-level classifications go through faster, meaning that users can benefit from optimized processing.
  • Security Features – Although MPLS doesn’t encrypt the data being sent, it is outside of the public internet, so it operates similar to a virtual private network (VPN).

Cons

  • Cost – because MPLS is not software-based, users have to depend on a carrier to provide the service. For firms who need global access, the expense of using MPLS can be prohibitive.
  • Security – yes, security is a pro and a con. Because the data isn’t encrypted with these labels, it’s easier for mistakes to allow breaches in the system. Also, your carrier has to be in charge of providing any cybersecurity upgrades.

Overall, MPLS has some significant advantages and drawbacks, which means that most enterprises that can afford it will want to have a hybrid network. Deploying both MPLS and cloud-based services can deliver the best of both worlds. Most of the data you transmit can be done over the public internet (cloud), while sensitive or real-time information (video) can be sent via MPLS.

MPLS vs. SD-WAN

Considering that the shift these days has mostly been toward software-defined wide-area networks (SD-WAN), it’s easy to assume that MPLS is mostly obsolete. However, as we’ve seen, there are some potential benefits to keeping the relatively antiquated technology around. Let’s break down some of the different components of the wide-area network and see how MPLS and SD-WAN stack up.

Connectivity

Back in the old days, when businesses wanted to connect multiple offices or branches, they had to invest in something like MPLS. If they wished to have complete control over the network, they also had to invest in expensive infrastructure (i.e., fiber optic cables).

Comparatively speaking, cloud-based solutions (SD-WAN) have made it so much simpler and cost-effective for organizations of all sizes to be more interconnected. Now, different branches can streamline communications and file sharing without having to drop tons of money.

That being said, there is inherent reliability in MPLS. Although companies do have to rely on a service provider to do the hard work of setting up labels and pathways, those routes are going to work every time without fail. On SD-WAN, once the data hits the open internet, speed and uptime are dependent on a variety of servers and routers, which can lead to lag or potential connection issues.

Winner: MPLS for reliability

Cost

As we’ve mentioned, most smaller businesses won’t be able to afford the speed and control offered by MPLS, particularly if trying to connect different offices. Also, if changes need to be made to the network (i.e., security patches), those can be expensive because they take time and resources to implement. On SD-WAN, a patch can be uploaded to each device remotely with a click of a button. Overall, both startup and maintenance expenses are higher with MPLS.

Winner: SD-WAN

Security

This category is a bit tricky. On the one hand, MPLS offers some pretty significant security advantages. Because data isn’t part of the open internet, it’s much harder for hackers to gain access to the system. Also, denial-of-service (DOS) attacks are mostly impossible on an MPLS network. Many hackers prefer DOS attacks because of their speed and efficiency, so having this advantage can be life-saving for large enterprises.

On the other hand, SD-WAN is much more user-friendly for cybersecurity. Your IT team can monitor and update the network in real-time, ensuring that the system is well-protected at all times. Also, as we mentioned, installing a patch is much faster when doing it in the cloud than in an MPLS system.

Winner: Tie

Bottom Line: MPLS Is Still Valuable

When it comes to building a network that works best for your organization, you shouldn’t discount the value that can come from MPLS. This service may not be as hip or adaptive as cloud-based software, but it can bring some tangible strengths to the table. If you’re looking to build a comprehensive wide-area network, it would be a good idea to find a quality MPLS provider.

Resources: https://www.sdxcentral.com/networking/sd-wan/definitions/sd-wan-vs-mpls-pros-cons-technologies/
https://www.networkworld.com/article/2297171/network-security-mpls-explained.html

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