The WAN, an MPLS-based IP, is among 6 hot technologies for 2006.Traffic: MPLS-based services offer a cost-effective express lane for all types of WAN flows.Unless you've been living under a rock, chances are you've heard about MPLS, the technology virtually every major carrier has selected for its network underpinnings. MPLS has been around since the mid-1990s, and services have been available since at least 2000. So why did I give it the thumbs-up when Network World asked me to nominate one of the top six technologies for 2006?Simple: Leading-edge enterprises are flocking to MPLS-based services and reaping major benefits as a result. Nemertes Research recently benchmarked best practices at 75 major enterprises and found that 57% of benchmark participants are either deploying or planning to deploy MPLS-based services.Among companies that pride themselves on aggressive technology deployment, the trend is even stronger. Nemertes recently benchmarked the Wall Street Technology Association's (WSTA) member companies to determine the state of IT deployment today and future directions for tomorrow. (WSTA is a not-for-profit educational organization and forum for financial technology professionals.)WSTA members tend to be large (annual revenue in the range of $400 million to $10 billion) and spend lavishly on IT. Moreover, they overwhelmingly identify their corporate IT cultures as either aggressive or "bleeding-edge." Of these hard-core IT shops, 50% say they're using MPLS today; the remainder say they're moving toward it.Key reasons for the high level of interest in MPLS include its optimized support for critical applications, cost savings and ability to future-proof networks. These characteristics result from MPLS' architecture, which welds the best characteristics of packet- and circuit-switched technology: Although traffic is packetized in IP, ATM, frame or Ethernet formats, or a combination, MPLS adds a label that enables traffic flows (the packets that comprise a session or transaction) to be managed directly, granting those flows optimized QoS. MPLS also enables traffic engineering, where carriers direct traffic along predetermined paths, which makes it easier to manage network buildouts.These features allow MPLS to multiplex diverse traffic types effectively onto a common infrastructure, support any-to-any traffic patterns cost-effectively and ensure that individual applications get the network performance they require. They also position MPLS to support a host of applications, including the ones that most leading-edge enterprises are actively assessing or deploying, including:Converged voice, video and data applications. With MPLS, carriers can provide QoS guarantees for real-time applications, including voice and video. Video is both high-bandwidth and latency-sensitive, and both voice and video tend to have more-distributed, any-to-any traffic patterns, which MPLS handles far more effectively than hub-and-spoke architectures such as ATM and frame relay.Service-oriented architecture (SOA), grid computing and peer-to-peer traffic. These also generate any-to-any traffic flows and have strong requirements for QoS and traffic engineering.Data center connectivity. Any-to-any connectivity is particularly important as data centers consolidate, because it makes it easy for remote sites to switch seamlessly to a back-up data center during an outage. With frame relay and ATM, backup requires provisioning "shadow," permanent virtual circuits or deploying switched virtual circuits, both of which add cost and complexity.Security. Although MPLS doesn't inherently increase security, there are a variety of ways that encryption can be added to MPLS-based VPNs, which are designed to ensure network-address privacy and transparency.Migrating to MPLS-based services also can cut costs, though the degree to which it does depends considerably on how converged an organization's traffic is. Using MPLS for pure data transport is generally only marginally cheaper than alternatives such as ATM and frame relay; but layer on the voice and video and WAN savings can top 25%.Given all the benefits MPLS bestows, you might be wondering how difficult it is to make the move. Surprisingly, it's less painful than you'd think. Technically, MPLS isn't a service offering, but an underlying infrastructure. Carriers can therefore migrate their core switches to MPLS "under the covers," while customers continue to subscribe to their existing frame relay or ATM services.To reap the benefits described above, users will most likely migrate to MPLS-based IP services (rather than frame or ATM), but even that move isn't challenging. "The changeover was seamless," reports the technology planner for a major pharmaceutical company.MPLS-based services are available from most major U.S. carriers, including Verizon\/MCI, AT&T and Sprint; emerging alternative carriers such as Masergy and Megapath; and a range of international carriers, including BT and NTT.NOT HOT: IPv6Unless the feds put a gun to your head, put IPv6 where it belongs, on the back burner. In a recent survey by consulting firm INS, only 2% of 200 companies surveyed said they had implemented v6. The rest were hard-pressed to come up with a reason to upgrade from v4. The landscape may change because the federal Office of Management and Budget plans to force all federal agencies onto v6 by 2008, and that\u2019s expected to put pressure on companies to fall in line, but 2008 is a long way off and you\u2019ve got more important projects to tackle.The bottom line: If you're planning strategic initiatives for 2006 that include VoIP, video-over-IP, SOA, data-center consolidation, or grid or peer-to-peer computing, you should be considering MPLS-based services.Johnson is president of Nemertes Research. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.