MPLS Gets Lukewarm Reviews

A debate at Lightspeed Europe shows that even proponents worry about the protocol's ultimate success

December 4, 2001

3 Min Read
MPLS Gets Lukewarm Reviews

LONDON -- Lightspeed Europe 2001 -- Gurus at the Lightspeed Europe conference questioned the promise of the emerging core network technology standard, Multiprotocol Label Switching (MPLS), during a panel debate held here today.

MPLS proponent Geoff Bennett, who is a distinguished engineer at Marconi PLC (Nasdaq/London: MONI), said he fears that if the industry relies on the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) to standardize MPLS, disappointment may follow.

"There may be little to prevent MPLS from going the way of ATM or OSI," he said. "Standards bodies today aren't about making standards, they're about politics... about how vendor A can suppress the initiative of vendor B in order to gain competitive advantage."

The IETF, he said, moves from "one slippery slope to another," enabling vendors to snarl the process in order to stifle competititors' plans. "It's a really, really childish way of running a standards body." And, unfortunately, if allowed to continue it could doom MPLS before it really gets off the ground.

Peter Lothberg, an independent consultant who took the opposing side of the MPLS debate, didn't comment on the IETF. But he said MPLS may not even play a minor role in future IP networks if warring factions cannot agree. "We may end up with nothing," he said.

Bennett and Lothberg faced off during a session titled "MPLS: Just Another Marketing Bandwagon?" Bennett maintained that, while MPLS is still developing, it offers the most efficient way yet to advance quality of service in IP networks, particularly if implemented in the network core. It can support traffic engineering fast restoration, and VPNs (virtual private networks), he said.

MPLS also has been touted as a means of unifying the management of so-called legacy services like ATM (see Équipe: Take the ATM Road to MPLS). And it's under discussion as the basis for delivering Ethernet-based services in metro networks (see MPLS Spurs Metro Ethernet Debate).

Lothberg said MPLS isn't required or desirable in the network core, but that it can run as an application in any IP network -- so long as carriers are willing to pay for the work involved.

He suggested that, depending on a series of variables, it may prove to be more economical for carriers to simply add more circuits to support user demand, instead of implementing MPLS, even at the network edge.

"Carriers need to decide whether to spend more money to bump someone off the network or simply to upgrade their facilities," he said.

The discussion culminated with an informal poll of the audience: About one quarter of those present raised their hands to agree that MPLS is "just another marketing ploy." Roughly the same number raised their hands that it wasn't. About 10 percent of the attendees thought there was a credible alternative to MPLS, and about the same thought MPLS is the only way to go. Perhaps significantly, the large majority of attendees didn't vote at all.

Today's session seems to be yet another manifestation of ongoing worries about the future of MPLS. At another conference in November, a group determined that supporters of the protocol desperately need focus their work in order to maintain momentum (see MPLS: Keeping it Real).

This isn't the first time the IETF's role has been called into question. Even longstanding supporters of the group say it's turned into "a negative force," whether or not MPLS becomes a standard (see The Monster Memo and IETF Routing Director Resigns).

— Mary Jander, Senior Editor, Light Reading

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