MPLS (Multi-Protocol Label Switching)

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is a data-carrying mechanism that belongs to the family of packet-switched networks. MPLS operates at an OSI Model layer that is generally considered to lie between traditional definitions of Layer 2 (Data Link Layer) and Layer 3 (Network Layer), and thus is often referred to as a “Layer 2.5” protocol. It was designed to provide a unified data-carrying service for both circuit-based clients and packet-switching clients which provide a datagram service model. It can be used to carry many different kinds of traffic, including IP packets, as well as native ATM, SONET, and Ethernet frames.

A number of different technologies were previously deployed with essentially identical goals, such as frame relay and ATM. MPLS is now replacing these technologies in the marketplace, mostly because it is better aligned with current and future technology needs.

In particular, MPLS dispenses with the cell-switching and signaling-protocol baggage of ATM. MPLS recognizes that small ATM cells are not needed in the core of modern networks, since modern optical networks (as of 2001) are so fast (at 10 Gbit/s and well beyond) that even full-length 1500 byte packets do not incur significant real-time queuing delays (the need to reduce such delays — e.g., to support voice traffic — was the motivation for the cell nature of ATM).

At the same time, MPLS attempts to preserve the traffic engineering and out-of-band control that made frame relay and ATM attractive for deploying large-scale networks.

MPLS was originally proposed by a group of engineers from Ipsilon Networks, but their “IP Switching” technology, which was defined only to work over ATM, did not achieve market dominance. Cisco Systems, Inc. introduced a related proposal, not restricted to ATM transmission, called “Tag Switching” when it was a Cisco proprietary proposal, and was renamed “Label Switching” when it was handed over to the IETF for open standardization. The IETF work involved proposals from other vendors, and development of a consensus protocol that combined features from several vendors’ work.

One original motivation was to allow the creation of simple high-speed switches, since for a significant length of time it was impossible to forward IP packets entirely in hardware. However, advances in VLSI have made such devices possible. Therefore the advantages of MPLS primarily revolve around the ability to support multiple service models and perform traffic management. MPLS also offers a robust recovery framework[1] that goes beyond the simple protection rings of synchronous optical networking (SONET/SDH).

While the traffic management benefits of migrating to MPLS are quite valuable (better reliability, increased performance), there is a significant loss of visibility and access into the MPLS cloud for IT departments.