Multiprotocol Label Switching (MPLS) is a type of data-carrying technique for high-performance telecommunications networks. MPLS directs data from one network node to the next based on short path labels rather than long network addresses, avoiding complex lookups in a routing table. The labels identify virtual links (paths) between distant nodes rather than endpoints. MPLS can encapsulate packets of various network protocols, hence its name “multiprotocol”. MPLS supports a range of access technologies, including T1/E1, ATM, Frame Relay, and DSL.
Role and functioning
MPLS is a multi-talented, smart, scalable, protocol-independent transport. In an MPLS network, data packets are assigned labels. Packet-forwarding decisions are made solely on the contents of this label, without the need to examine the packet itself. This allows one to create end-to-end circuits across any type of transport medium, using any protocol. The primary benefit is to eliminate dependence on a particular OSI model data link layer (layer 2) technology, such as Asynchronous Transfer Mode (ATM), Frame Relay, Synchronous Optical Networking (SONET) or Ethernet, and eliminate the need for multiple layer-2 networks to satisfy different types of traffic. MPLS belongs to the family of packet-switched networks.
MPLS operates at a layer that is generally considered to lie between traditional definitions of OSI Layer 2 (data link layer) and Layer 3 (network layer), and thus is often referred to as a layer 2.5 protocol. It was designed to provide a unified data-carrying service for both circuit-based clients and packet-switching clients which provide a datagram service model. It can be used to carry many different kinds of traffic, including IP packets, as well as native ATM, SONET, and Ethernet frames.
A number of different technologies were previously deployed with essentially identical goals, such as Frame Relay and ATM. Frame Relay and ATM use “labels” to move frames or cells throughout a network. The header of the Frame Relay frame and the ATM cell refers to the virtual circuit that the frame or cell resides on. The similarity between Frame Relay, ATM, and MPLS is that at each hop throughout the network, the “label” value in the header is changed. This is different from the forwarding of IP packets. MPLS technologies have evolved with the strengths and weaknesses of ATM in mind. Many network engineers agree that ATM should be replaced with a protocol that requires less overhead, while providing connection-oriented services for variable-length frames. MPLS is currently replacing some of these technologies in the marketplace. It is highly possible that MPLS will completely replace these technologies in the future, thus aligning these technologies with current and future technology needs.
In particular, MPLS dispenses with the cell-switching and signaling-protocol baggage of ATM. MPLS recognizes that small ATM cells are not needed in the core of modern networks, since modern optical networks are so fast (as of 2015, at 100 Gbit/s and beyond) that even full-length 1500 byte packets do not incur significant real-time queuing delays (the need to reduce such delays — e.g., to support voice traffic — was the motivation for the cell nature of ATM).
At the same time, MPLS attempts to preserve the traffic engineering (TE) and out-of-band control that made Frame Relay and ATM attractive for deploying large-scale networks.
While the traffic management benefits of migrating to MPLS are quite valuable (better reliability, increased performance), there is a significant loss of visibility and access into the MPLS cloud for IT departments.