MPLS gaining toehold in the enterprise

Having all but vanished from direct view over the past two years, multi-protocol label switching (MPLS) is now to the point in its development where a number of key vendors are implementing the technology into their product lines.

As a standard, MPLS has been put through the paces since early 1997 by the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) and is only now approaching completion. Primarily intended for improving router performance and traffic engineering, MPLS also quickly became the next big thing for quality of service (QoS) issues, said Nancee Ruzicka, program manager at Boston-based research firm The Yankee Group.

When the idea of MPLS was first hatched, the concept received a lot of attention before it went under the scrutiny of the IETF and vanished from the public’s view, Ruzicka said. But now that the MPLS standard is almost set in stone, companies feel it’s safe to start working with it.

“So now it’s more real and it is starting to get deployed,” she said. Many of the incumbent vendors in areas like Ethernet, routers and carriers have made recent announcements about adding MPLS technology to their products. This includes big guns like Nortel Networks Ltd., AT&T and Cisco Systems Inc., but also includes smaller companies.

Ruzicka noted that many of the start-up companies using MPLS are only using certain aspects of it. For instance, many are focusing on the traffic engineering capabilities and not using the QoS abilities at all.

“We’re starting to see some of that functionality come out, but MPLS is a whole series of things. The first thing that everybody seems to be implementing is the traffic engineering features and the virtual private network (VPN) features,” Ruzicka said.

What makes MPLS that good? According to Ruzicka, consistency and interoperability of multi-vendor platforms are the two things people like most about it. MPLS manages data routes better and allows network managers to set up and tear down capacity fairly quickly.

According to Yves LeMaitre, vice-president and general manager of Alcatel Canada Inc. in Kanata, Ont., the traffic engineering capabilities are most important.

“One of the main issues of IP (Internet protocol) networks was the lack of quality of service and, even more importantly, the very simple [difficulty] of how to traffic engineer your network,” LeMaitre said. “The routing algorithms that were used in the core of these networks … did not allow the service providers to balance traffic across multiple links, multiple trunks and between routers.”

With the traffic engineering functions of MPLS, it becomes much easier to balance traffic on a network, LeMaitre added.

There are two areas where MPLS will have a significant impact, LeMaitre said. It will be used as a convergence technology for networking and as an enabler for implementing new services like Layer 2 VPNs, voice over MPLS and LAN connectivity. Alcatel started launching its MPLS-based products in early spring.

Cisco also started releasing MPLS-based products this year. According to Azhar Sayeed, senior product manager at San Jose, Calif.-based Cisco Systems Inc.’s IOS technologies division, the adoption of MPLS has been much stronger and faster in Europe and Asia than in North America. He added that 100 per cent of the companies he has talked to are working towards implementing MPLS technologies in their networks.

“So three years ago, [companies] were a little more skeptical. They were waiting to see what the benefits [of MPLS] would be. Right now, they are pretty sure that they need MPLS in some form,” Sayeed said.

As with all technologies, MPLS is not perfect and there are still some concerns with it. The downside to the technology is that nobody yet knows how well it’s going to scale, Ruzicka said. Exactly how many thousands of routers and routes it can handle has yet to be determined.