MPLS: Keeping it Real

BOSTON – At the Next Generation Network (NGN) conference here this week, supporters of multiprotocol label switching (MPLS), a next-generation networking standard, gave an update on the status of the technology. The conclusion is that MPLS isn't dead, but it is in dire need of a focus.

Since 1997 MPLS has been heralded as the mother of all networking protocols, which would one day make true voice, video, and data convergence a reality. Over the past four years that idea has morphed into proposals calling for MPLS to do virtual private networking (VPN), intelligent optical switching, and 50-millisecond restoration in Ethernet networks. In short, is has become the answer for almost every problem facing the carrier networks.

Many in the industry are worried that this unfocused, catchall approach is simply a reinvention of ATM (see Poll: Is MPLS BS?).

"MPLS is made up of some of the best and worst aspects of our industry," said John McQuillan, co-chair of the NGN conference. “It goes to show that the urge for a do-it-all protocol is still there. But I think we have to resist that urge, since if you look at the history of developing such a protocol you see it hasn’t been successful.”

During a panel presentation and discussion on Thursday, Robert Newcomb, vice president of marketing for the MPLS Forum and former vice president of sales and marketing for Ennovate Networks, acknowledged that MPLS could not be all things to all networks, as he highlighted the current realities of MPLS successes.

“MPLS may not be able to solve every problem in the network,” said Newcomb. “But by this point it could probably solve world hunger." (Appreciative chuckles ensued.)

At a high level, MPLS was originally supposed to bring predictability and reliability to an IP network to differentiate classes of service so that carriers could provide service-level agreements (SLAs) and quality of service (QOS). It also aimed for the convergence of multiple and existing services over the same network. The ultimate promise was that it would also bring operational savings to carriers implementing it, by automating the way bandwidth connections are set up and torn down.

These lofty expectations took root in the development of three key areas: traffic engineering, VPN implementations, and QOS. The question posed at the conference was how well MPLS achieved those goals. The answer is a mixed one.

On the one hand, it has made significant progress in the development of traffic engineering, enabling carriers to automate more efficient provisioning of connections within their networks. Carriers using MPLS for such purposes include big carriers like UUNet and AT&T Corp. (NYSE: T). Several others like Cable and Wireless (NYSE: CWP), Qwest Communications International Corp. (NYSE: Q), and Verizon Communications Inc. (NYSE: VZ) have announced that they plan to deploy MPLS.

Carriers are also starting to use MPLS for VPNs, which allow corporations to set up secure links through public IP-based networks. While Newcomb, who worked for an IP VPN startup,n which has since gone out of business, admits that VPNs haven’t taken off with the gusto that had been anticipated, he says it's now one of the key areas of focus for the MPLS Forum. The number of customers using MPLS-VPNs is still small. Providers like Global One, which launched its VPN service in April 2000; Bell Canada, which started deployments in April 2001; and WorldCom Inc. (Nasdaq: WCOM), which started offering the service in May 2001 have only signed up a few hundred customers each for their services. This pales in comparison to the tens of thousands of Frame Relay customers.

“We haven’t seen as many VPN deployments as we thought we would,” said Newcomb. “I’m not saying that MPLS VPNs are non-existent, they just aren’t on a global scale of deployment yet.”

As for MPLS being used for quality of service, deployments also haven’t taken off yet. In fact, few if any carriers are using MPLS QOS to provide services to customers.

Like other developing technologies, MPLS has had some growing pains. The process of turning it into a standard has been slow. Currently, there are only 10 ratified RFCs from the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF), the standards body working on the technology. And there are more than 200 proposals. This means that only five percent of the proposals submitted have gone through the standards process.

Because of the lack of standards, there is a lack of interoperability among different vendors’ gear. Companies like Avici Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: AVCI; Frankfurt: BVC7), Cisco Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: CSCO), and Juniper Networks Inc. (Nasdaq: JNPR) have all demonstrated interoperability in research labs; but in reality, carriers deploying MPLS are sticking with single vendors.

The slowdown in capital spending has also slowed down development, because carriers are loath to invest in new technologies in the midst of a recession in their industry.

“I’ve heard more about Frame Relay this week than I have in the past three years,” said McQuillan during his wrapup session at the end of the conference. “It’s a good example of a connection-oriented network, and that seems to be what carriers want and need.”

And, of course, there are the political obstacles that dog every technology. Infighting within the IETF and among other groups like the Optical Internetworking Forum (OIF) and Metro Ethernet Forum, which also have vested interests in MPLS, has contributed to the lack of focus and slow pace of development.

And yet with each passing day, more and more companies dream up different uses for MPLS. The optical equipment companies want to see the development of Generalized MPLS (GMPLS), which will bring packet intelligence to wavelength switching. Metro Ethernet companies want to morph the Layer 3 protocol into a Layer 2 protocol so that they can use it for providing VPNs. They also hope to use MPLS as a way to provide 50 millisecond restoration, a requirement for any network hoping to replace a Sonet-based network. And voice-over-IP vendors push for voice over MPLS. While Newcomb and others involved in the MPLS Forum agree that there are many uses for MPLS, they urge companies to remain focused.

“I don’t mean to be overly critical of MPLS,” said McQuillan. “But I think they should just pick an application and just go with it.”

— Marguerite Reardon, Senior Editor, Light Reading
http://www.lightreading.com Want to know more? This very topic is the subject of a couple of sessions at Lightspeed Europe,Light Reading’s annual conference, on December 4-6, 2001, in London. Details: Signaling in Optical Networks and MPLS: Just Another Marketing Bandwagon?

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skeptic 12/4/2012 | 7:35:51 PM
re: MPLS: Keeping it Real I read a poll elsewhere where ATT, WCOM and CW were asked to prioritize key technologies for them going forward. These are the results:

1) MPLS (ahem)

Ok, but just saying MPLS doesn't really explain
much of what they want. All of these people can
be saying MPLS but meaning very different things.

I wish people (especially providers) would stop
using MPLS as a generic term. It would be better
to say MPLS-TE, MPLS-VPNs or

flanker 12/4/2012 | 7:35:47 PM
re: MPLS: Keeping it Real ...I wish people (especially providers) would stop
using MPLS as a generic term. It would be better
to say MPLS-TE, MPLS-VPNs or

Granted it is not a true protocol. MPLS biggest problem is the lack of interoperability and the tendency of carriers/vendors to custom configure MPLS for a proprietary network.

That said, WCOM is very happy with IP over MPLS/ATM and frame over MPLS. CW says IP over ATM wastes too much bandwidth (with ATMs overhead) for an int'l network.

edgecore 12/4/2012 | 7:35:46 PM
re: MPLS: Keeping it Real Flanker,

Do you have the URL for that poll, I would like to get a copy of it?


ARBoy 12/4/2012 | 7:35:46 PM
re: MPLS: Keeping it Real "That said, WCOM is very happy with IP over MPLS/ATM and frame over MPLS. CW says IP over ATM wastes too much bandwidth (with ATMs overhead) for an int'l network."

I'd hardly base the future of any technology on what either WCOM or CW thinks. They're at the bottom of the gene pool when it comes to SPs. Whether you like it or not, the RBOCs are the present and future leaders.
flanker 12/4/2012 | 7:35:41 PM
re: MPLS: Keeping it Real
'Poll'? Who said anything about a 'poll'? Certainly not me or networkmagazinedotcom.
pschurr 12/4/2012 | 7:35:39 PM
re: MPLS: Keeping it Real Am I the only person who knows there is no such thing as QoS in ATM (and IP)? The only true QoS (or Cos) is a dedicated timeslot on a TDM system. Everything else is a fudge. For example, ATM is a stat-mux system that tries to act like a TDM by 'strict' resource allocation. It's not ATM providing the service, it's just the way you allocate resources.

I can (and do) oversubscribe ATM/FR trunks regularly, based on known customer usage and total resource availability. The minute you oversubscribe a stat-mux service you've thrown 'true QoS' out the door. Now you're running with the animals - and you WILL get bitten. Economics rule, not technology.

gladysnight 12/4/2012 | 7:35:38 PM
re: MPLS: Keeping it Real peter,

i've observed several times here that the "problem" of mapping a packet service over a circuit remains, no matter what you do.

In the 80's we did X.25 over nx64 E1/T1 circuits, in the 90's we did frame over unframed E1/T1 (G.703) and then ATM over 622M and 2.5G, now we're gonna do IP and/or ethernet over a 10G lambda (apparently) and then 40G, too. . . . .

Either way, a lambda switch is a circuit switch, and a wavelength is a circuit. Talk of intelligently "routing" optical packets remains science fiction, to the best of my knowledge.

The "problem" is economic, for sure: you have to stuff the circuit as efficiently as possible so as to remain price competitive in your target market, but you have to not stuff it so much that you, well, stuff it, iyswim.

I don't know what the killer lambda stuffing solution of the noughties will be, but get back to me in 10 years or so and we can discuss it.

I do, like you, doubt that it will be MPLS, except perhaps in the way that 4,000 km's unregenerated 10G Ethernet on single-mode fibre is the same thickwire, non-switched, truly shared-medium copper-based ethernet I used to screw taps into many years ago . . . .

fiber_r_us 12/4/2012 | 7:35:38 PM
re: MPLS: Keeping it Real Peter:

There is no such thing as "true QoS". QoS is in the "eye of the beholder". QoS means many different things to many different people. It at least includes:

a) Specifying jitter (the variation of delays between successive packets)

b) Specifying latency (the delay from one end of the network to the other)

c) Specifying bandwidth

d) Specifying service availability

When carriers and customers say they "want QoS", the implication is that they want control over these QoS parameters. QoS does NOT mean setting the QOS parameters to some pre-determined fixed values (ala TDM).

If the customer wishes for TDM-type QOS then they should get that and pay the expense that is required to support such a service.

If, on the other hand, the customer has no need for such stringent QOS values (which describes the vast majority of data traffic), then the customer should be able to choose a different set of QOS parameters that meets thier requirements. In such a case, said service should be able to be provided via cheaper infrastructure and at a resulting cheaper price to the customer.

The idea that TDM is the only way to achieve QoS illustrates a mis-understanding of the industry problem at hand: the ability to offer many levels of QoS. TDM provides only one flavor of QOS with rigid values for the parameters and very coarse pre-determined values for bandwidth.

So, there is indeed such a thing as QoS on ATM, Frame Relay, IP, and MPLS networks. This QoS is not the same as TDM; but this is not a bad thing, just different.

Indeed, as you say, "economics rule". This is the whole idea behind being able to adjust the QoS values and offer different QoS levels at different QoS prices.
edgecore 12/4/2012 | 7:35:38 PM
re: MPLS: Keeping it Real !raelc dna duoL

John Casper 12/4/2012 | 7:35:35 PM
re: MPLS: Keeping it Real Other than hype, there is NOTHING that MPLS does what can't be done better using other existing technologies.

The basic idea was good in 1997. But by 2001, it has got attached too many bad ideas. BGP/MPLS VPNs being one of the worst peice of crap being promoted by the vested interests to keep a dead technology alive.

Why would one spend billions of dollars in making a network MPLS capable when one can offer VPNs using other technologies. The whole IETF MPLS session has been hijacked by too many commercial interests unlike the past where mostly people with serious researh interests were involved in the standards process. Most of the drafts in MPLS groups are pieces of junk.

And of course, I wouldn't comment on the noises by commercial mouthpieces of big two in the IP industry to MPLS technology. If they had there way, MPLS is the best technology to signal toasters in American homes, shoe polish machines in airports, and making corn grow in the field!.

It is time industry junk this overhyped, meaningless technology that achieves little at the tremondous extra cost and complexity.

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