Sprint Spurns MPLS for Global VPNs
The carrier is not only shunning the labeling protocol in its American network, but also on its growing international backbone. Sprint has quietly been expanding its IP VPN service offering in Europe and several locations in Asia for more than a year now, and it plans to make several announcements about its progress early next year.
At a time when carrier after carrier is coming out beating the MPLS drum, choosing not to use the protocol is a bold move. MPLS is considered by many to be a unifying technology with the ability to tie together separate data and ATM voice networks on the telecommunications backbone. Instead of following the herd, Sprint has elected to run its IP VPNs over a straight IP network, using a stateless protocol called L2TPv3 (which stands for Layer 2 Tunneling Protocol, version 3).
Sprint’s decision not to join the MPLS party has many industry observers scratching their heads and wondering if the move will cost the carrier customers.
"From what we’ve seen with MPLS, it’s definitely a checklist item." says Erin Dunne, an analyst with the Vertical Systems Group. However, she continues, "Sprint comes in and can usually explain their way out of it."
The checklist could pose more of a problem for Sprint now, as it attempts to gain market share in the IP VPN market outside the states. "MPLS has been adopted more readily in Europe than in the U.S.," says Infonetics Research Inc. analyst Richard Webb. "[Sprint] is going against the grain."
"I think it’s going to be more challenging," admits Barry Tishgart, Sprint’s director of data product management, talking of gaining market share in the European market. "Everything that we’ve found suggests that [the notion that MPLS is the only technology worth having] is stronger in Europe."
He insists, however, these preconceived ideas will not pose a problem to Sprint’s service offering. "We have not had a single door shut on us because of this issue," he says.
Sprint also isn't alone in believing that MPLS may not be all it's cracked up to be, particularly when it's used in very large scale carrier networks. Siemens AG (NYSE: SI; Frankfurt: SIE) is leading a study in Germany, called the KING Project, which is investigating alternatives to the protocol (see MPLS: King for a Day?).
If customers absolutely insist, Sprint says it will offer them MPLS -- from the edge of its network. The core of the Sprint network, however, will remain MPLS-free, according to Peter Lothberg, an independent technology consultant working for Sprint. "There is no network that can offer MPLS in the core at Sprint," he says, "but we can offer MPLS over the IP network."
But why not just go all the way and bring it into the core? The main issue is keeping it simple, according to Kathy Walker, senior vice president of network services in Sprint's Global Markets Group. "We think building off of our native IP network is the way to go," she says. "We want to go with simplicity." The idea, she says, is to "extend globally and make it look just like it looks domestically."
And domestically, the company has decided that MPLS just isn’t worth the bother.
Sprint has long professed its skepticism to using the protocol, insisting that rather than simplifying the network, it actually makes it more complex. Using L2TPv3 over a straight IP network, the company says it can offer all of the features available with MPLS, and then some. Among other things, Sprint says its IP VPN service allows for secure remote access, extranet capabilities, and data encryption -- none of which, it claims, are possible with MPLS.
"From the customer side, you can’t tell the difference, except that our performance is better," says Lothberg.
Since it is a new technology, MPLS is constantly changing and does have its disadvantages, says Geoff Bennett, director of Light Reading's Training Division. However, he says, a lot of the problems have begun to be rectified. "It also seems to be the direction the industry is moving in," he observes.
— Eugénie Larson, Reporter, Light Reading