Can MPLS Open Sesame?
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