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MPLS shows signs of really taking flight

Oct 21, 20023 mins

How do you know a technology has caught fire? I look for three things: ongoing technical development; a focus on making the technology easy to deploy, configure and manage; and the real indicator – paying customers.

By all three standards, Multi-protocol Label Switching finally has it, as demonstrated strikingly at the recent MPLScon conference in Denver. Presenters included some of the technology’s lead creators: Yakov Rekhter, who co-developed Border Gateway Protocol (BGP) and MPLS; Luca Martini, who developed the eponymous specifications  for transporting Layer 2 protocols across MPLS; and Bruce Davie, who in addition to his work on MPLS has written the clearest and most comprehensive book about networking technologies I’ve read, Computer Networks: A Systems Approach.

Each of these presenters – and a host of others – discussed ongoing developments in the area of MPLS technology. One thing that struck me was the degree of friendly cooperation across a slew of ostensibly competitive vendors. Sure, there was sparring between engineers from Cisco and Juniper Networks over the issue of whether BGP or Label Distribution Protocol is the best way to exchange VPN information. But that falls into the area of healthy debate. The bigger picture was that both major and up-and-coming vendors are committed firmly to advancing this technology.

That’s not unusual; vendors are typically the biggest boosters of any new technology. What was more of a surprise was the focus on service issues. As noted before in this column, MPLS is a technology, not a service. The difference? Providers can cost-effectively deploy, configure, secure and manage a service.

At MPLScon, several major service providers, including heavyweights AT&T and British Telecom, weighed in on what they’ve learned from early deployments of the technology – and vendors took careful notes. In some cases, the vendors even drove the discussion toward service-oriented issues: Monique Morrow, CTO consulting engineer at Cisco, emphatically steered a security panel toward the development of a set of MPLS VPN “best practices” for companies and service providers. I chaired that panel, and you’ll be seeing the results of the security best practices discussion in an upcoming column.

Another surprise was uncovering the relatively large size of the customer population. Service providers reported several thousand enterprise users of their MPLS-based services. Add that to the number of companies I’ve spoken to that are considering private-network deployment of MPLS, and you start to recognize this technology has taken off.

So many companies are interested in MPLS that Burton Group, which organizes MPLScon, is considering hosting the next conference in New York to make it easier for companies to attend. If you like the idea, please let them know at