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SmartAdvice: For Global Companies, MPLS Networks Offer Flexibility, Efficiency

MPLS is the future in telecommunications after carriers smooth out spotty coverage and variations in feature sets, The Advisory Council says. Also, how to set up a project-management office.

Editor's Note: Welcome to SmartAdvice, a weekly column by The Advisory Council (TAC), an advisory service firm. The feature answers two questions of core interest to you, ranging from leadership advice to enterprise strategies to how to deal with vendors. Submit questions directly to

Question A: What is MPLS, and should we be looking at implementing a global "MPLS-based" network to replace our current telecommunications network?

Our advice: There is no question that MultiProtocol Label Switching technology represents the future in voice and data telecom networks. With uncharacteristically little fanfare, many global telecom carriers in the past year or two have been quietly converting their networks to support this emerging standards-based technology. For larger companies looking for a data-communications technology that offers relatively secure, highly efficient, and flexible networks on a global scale, the carriers' MPLS service offerings are well worth considering, but be aware that service levels and coverage will remain spotty until carriers complete the required equipment upgrades in their networks.

MPLS as an Internet Engineering Task Force standard has been around since the late 1990s. It grew out of prior technologies, including Cisco's Tag Switching, IBM's Aggregate Route-based IP Switching, and Toshiba's Cell-Switched Router, which were all designed to move network packets through a network fabric more efficiently, by applying OSI level 2 speed to level 3 flexibility. The ability to offer a form of networking that is by its very nature both virtual and secure means that the additional packet encryption overhead created to support the more commonly available IP-level VPNs is practically eliminated.

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From the enterprise perspective, consider replacing an aging frame relay network with MPLS service because it offers more flexible and efficient service. The companies that will benefit most from MPLS are businesses with global reach and complex, changing networking requirements. A need for support for video-streaming capabilities, voice over IP, and large volumes of secure intranetwork traffic make the case for MPLS more compelling. Since the infrastructure costs to deliver MPLS traffic are relatively fixed, the overall connectivity costs remain about the same as more conventional data-communication services.

On the down side, MPLS isn't quite a mature technology yet. For many carriers, the network coverage is spotty, with each carrier concentrating on features as they upgrade their networks. If your networking needs happen to match a given carrier's features and availability, you're in luck; otherwise, you'll be stuck with less network flexibility and expensive backhaul circuits to offices that aren't near network connections that support MPLS.

MPLS isn't a technology that will make sense for everyone. For a company that can take advantage of the features, MPLS is clearly the future in telecommunications. For the rest of us, let the carriers smooth out the spotty coverage and wide variations in feature sets before committing. Given that a number of carriers are replacing their aging gear with MPLS-based equipment, it's likely that within a few years you will be on an MPLS network without your even knowing it.

-- Beth Cohen

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