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Can MPLS Open Sesame?

Some key networking companies seem to think that the next-generation routing protocol, MPLS (multiprotocol label switching), has become the new magic password for opening up telecommunications carrier checkbooks. But they have little evidence to prove their claim just yet.

Juniper Networks Inc. (Nasdaq: JNPR) and Sonus Networks Inc. today issued a statement that they "are working together to deliver carrier-class solutions harnessing the latest innovations in MPLS..." (see Juniper, Sonus Team on IP/MPLS). And earlier this week, Nortel Networks Corp. (NYSE/Toronto: NT) announced a sweeping "end-to-end" MPLS initiative (see Nortel Announces MPLS Strategy).

But when pressed, it doesn't look as though there's much behind these announcements -- at least not yet.

Take the Juniper/Sonus deal. Sonus says the deal is a reference selling arrangement, terms undislosed. Indeed, Sonus doesn't support MPLS at all in its products just yet, even though it does support Diffserv (differentiated services), one of many protocols in the MPLS scheme. Juniper did not return calls about today's announcement.

Sonus says it interoperates with Juniper's equipment. But Zephion, the poster child for interoperability mentioned in the press release, says it can't talk in any detail about what's going on in its network -- even though it endorses its vendors. That's because Zephion is in stealth mode right now and on the verge of a second funding round (see Kleiner Readies BBO's Rebirth).

Nortel also is at the very start of its MPLS strategy. So far, it supports MPLS in its Passport 15000 and its Shasta IP switching products. Nortel's chief marketing and strategy officer, Anil Khatod, says a more widespread rollout of MPLS across all product lines is definitely planned but will be implemented "on a case-by-case basis, as carriers require it."

Given these caveats, why the announcements? Several reasons, analysts say. First off, the initials "MPLS" evoke images of carriers consolidating and making the most of their fiber infrastructure -- images vendors and carriers alike are embracing as the answer to capex woes.

But in reality, vendors may be far from being able to offer the provisioning, quality of service, and class of service functions many associate with MPLS.

"There's a confusion about MPLS," says Jonathon Plonka, VP of IP engineering at Global Crossing Ltd. (NYSE: GX), a customer of both Juniper and Sonus, and an investor in Sonus. "MPLS isn't just one protocol. It's a whole family of protocols."

Plonka says Global Crossing has had an MPLS network in place for months. But while MPLS enables much more reliable and flexible interaction between routers, protocols like Diffserv must be implemented separately on top of basic MPLS in order to create the quality and class of service support most carriers want and need. And that, Plonka says, is a more complicated problem, one Global Crossing is still working to solve in its network.

"Instead of 7,000 tunnels, you need 21,000 tunnels, three for each service class," he notes.

The complexities of implementing Diffserv-enabled MPLS may be another reason behind this week's announcements: By touting MPLS, vendors signal a willingness to work with the carriers in developing comprehensive network solutions -- which translates to more products, more sales.

Just what those comprehensive solutions should entail, however, is still open to question, analysts say. "MPLS in its entirety isn't required to bring better management and quality of service to networks," says Fred McClimans, managing director at McClimans Technology Partners. "In fact, it may not always be the best approach to solving the problem." Partial MPLS, or alternative proprietary protocols, may be the answer in some instances, he says, and approaches are still evolving.

- Mary Jander, Senior Editor, Light Reading http://www.lightreading.com
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Scott Raynovich 12/4/2012 | 8:29:07 PM
re: Can MPLS Open Sesame? who actually uses this stuff?
fiber_r_us 12/4/2012 | 8:29:04 PM
re: Can MPLS Open Sesame? Which "stuff"? As was pointed out in the interview, MPLS is a combination of a lot of things. Practically every major carrier has some implementation of some part of MPLS implemented in parts of thier network, including C&W, Level3, WCOM, AT&T, and Qwest.
ackronym 12/4/2012 | 8:28:53 PM
re: Can MPLS Open Sesame? It is my understanding that there are two versions of MPLS, neither of which has been standardized. LDP (Cisco) and RSVP (Juniper). And neither are compatible with one another. However, ALL routers on a link have to have the same MPLS protocol to provide any kind of QOS, so there has to be buy-in from all of the hardware manufacturers, right? Otherwise what is the big promise of MPLS??
metroshark 12/4/2012 | 8:28:51 PM
re: Can MPLS Open Sesame? This is actually not true. MPLS supports hierarchical network architectures. This is the whole point of being able to push/pop tags as you travel along the end-to-end path. You could have a MPLS core which is traffic engineered using RSVP while running LDP among edge devices that go around this core to provision tunneling services. In this case, you can mix and match vendors and protocols.
fiber_r_us 12/4/2012 | 8:28:50 PM
re: Can MPLS Open Sesame? Both Juniper and Cisco do RSVP. Juniper is in the process of implementing LDP. Interoperability already exists.
skeptic 12/4/2012 | 8:28:45 PM
re: Can MPLS Open Sesame? This is actually not true. MPLS supports hierarchical network architectures. This is the whole point of being able to push/pop tags as you travel along the end-to-end path. You could have a MPLS core which is traffic engineered using RSVP while running LDP among edge devices that go around this core to provision tunneling services. In this case, you can mix and match vendors and protocols.
-------------------
MPLS in theory supports hierarchical architecutes but in pratice, those sorts of architectures work better on paper than they do in a live network. Lots of people at IETF have made a good living for a couple years selling dreams, but there is very little sign of this sort of thing in use.

There has been much more hot air and talk about MPLS features like this than their has been deployment.

As far as mixing and matching vendors, don't even try unless the MPLS functionalty is really basic.
(hint - displaying that you can build a tunnel and run a subset of an old protocol (RSVP) is no indication of real MPLS capabilities).
skeptic 12/4/2012 | 8:28:44 PM
re: Can MPLS Open Sesame? It is my understanding that there are two versions of MPLS, neither of which has been standardized. LDP (Cisco) and RSVP (Juniper). And neither are compatible with one another. However, ALL routers on a link have to have the same MPLS protocol to provide any kind of QOS, so there has to be buy-in from all of the hardware manufacturers, right? Otherwise what is the big promise of MPLS??
-------------------------
I dont think any of the MPLS vendors are even delivering working MPLS QOS including cisco and juniper.



skeptic 12/4/2012 | 8:28:44 PM
re: Can MPLS Open Sesame?
Who uses this stuff?
---------------------

The basic stuff is used by some people to work around congestion in networks. (RSVP)

Some people are thinking about MPLS VPNs. But
the reality is that they are a non-standard
nearly proprietary technology of cisco, despite
claims to the contrary. Juniper may or may
not be able to successfully copy the feature.

Few (if any) people are using LDP outside of playing around with it.

majid 12/4/2012 | 8:28:40 PM
re: Can MPLS Open Sesame? All forms of MPLS use LDP (label distribution protocol) to distribute label bindings.

The difference is over what signaling protocols to use to find and reserve a route, subject to constraints such as QoS requirements. If no such protocol is available, the QoS policies have to be implemented manually for each MPLS tunnel on each router, which is of course not scalable in terms of OSS support and processes.

Cisco originated a proposal to use RSVP. Pretty much everybody else pushed instead to use CR-LDP (constraint routing LDP), an extension to LDP. This is another instance of Cisco trying to leverage its market dominance to push proprietary protocols (EIGRP anyone?), but does not mean their solution is without merit.

The argument for CR-LDP is that MPLS implementors will already have a LDP implementation, when RSVP means having to implement a whole new protocol. Of course, Cisco already has a RSVP implementation, so using RSVP instead of CR-LDP tilts the tables in their favor over green-field startups that would have to go through the delay and expense of implementing RSVP.

CR-LDP proponents also fault RSVP for its limited scalability outside corporate Intranets. This is not a valid point, as the reason RSVP does not scale in backbone networks is the cost of maintaining per-flow resource reservations, not an option is a core router that could potentially be traversed by millions of RSVP connections. In Cisco's proposal, RSVP would be used to establish LSPs only, and would not require significantly different resource utilization than CR-LDP.

In the end, of course, it boils down to issues of interoperability and quality of implementation.

There was a similar fight some time ago between proponents of the ISO IS-IS routing protocol and those of the IETF OSPF protocol, the latter being of course better in its partisan's opinion as it was unsullied by association with OSI. Cisco's implementation of IS-IS was more stable than its implementation of OSPF, which is why the largest backbones use IS-IS internally, even though it is much more cumbersome to manage.
Betelgeuse 12/4/2012 | 8:28:34 PM
re: Can MPLS Open Sesame? Nortel uses CR-LDP on the Passport 15K. The plan is to support RSVP in the future. Shasta is being devloped with RSVP. So for a while the Shasta MPLS won't work with Passport's MPLS.

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