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MPLS - The Forgotten Enterprise Technology

May 03, 2010

[Originally published in SC Magazine] There is a common misconception that MPLS (multi-protocol label switching) in the enterprise is akin to killing flies with a bazooka: it’s costly, its overkill and probably not supported. Wrong! Historically, MPLS was used in the service provider market to decrease the amount of time taken to provision new services, and it’s extremely flexible class of service and traffic control capabilities offer numerous benefits.

Interestingly, many medium to large sized enterprise networks today still have distinct service provider characteristics. The network groups often contain extremely strict SLA requirements, have the need to utilize network virtualization to lower real estate footprint in costly data-center space, and depend on departmental charge-backs when services divisions need to re-coupe cost associated with supporting the businesses network requirements. In some cases, enterprise professionals find that their company’s network has been architected into a corner; when new business requirements come down the pike, the entire network needs to be re-assessed and in many cases, re-designed.

Because many IT professionals still relate MPLS to a service provider technology, they don’t realize the value it can deliver to their enterprise. MPLS is an open standard supported by the majority of vendors that manufacture switches and routers, and can help even the largest networks in world to scale their infrastructure, services and mission critical business applications. Not only does it provide a topology that’s built to scale, it gives managers the ability to quickly respond to new requirements while still achieving an extremely capable and highly resilient network.  Importantly, even if a network re-architecture is required, this is a small investment compared to the alternative, which requires capital expenditure.

When planning for tomorrow, networks must be increasingly agile in order to keep pace with the ever-changing business requirements that dictate network architecture. Network segmentation and enhanced security and performance on an application or user basis are just a few examples that can be handled with ease in an MPLS environment.  Another great feature is that enterprise network operators have the choice of building, buying or both when it comes to deploying MPLS. Increasingly, deployments are a “hybrid” solution, with some of the WAN outsourced to a service provider and the rest built using the company’s internal DWDM/dark fiber infrastructure.

Other appropriate uses for MPLS include WAN consolidation projects that require disparate WAN connections to be combined into a single network, virtualized network core projects that result in true, independent separation of layer 2 and 3 network services, and transport network conversions of costly SONET/DWDM infrastructure to MPLS.

In conclusion, the benefits of MPLS should not be ignored. It can make an organization’s existing network more agile and keep cap and op ex budget intact.  MPLS is an extremely scalable and flexible technology that is underutilized because many network operators fear it will add complexity. The truth is management will be simplified when organizations achieve a consolidated IP Based network with traffic engineering capabilities and dynamic network service provisioning.

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