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What is MPLS?

Imagine a package being sent from Melbourne to Perth, where it stops in every town along the way and a postman has to open the package, read where it’s going, make a decision about how to deliver it, before sending it on its merry way. This adds considerable time to perform an unnecessary task, making it very inefficient and slow.

MPLS stands for Multiprotocol Label Switching, it’s a packet forwarding technology that has powered enterprise networks around the world for the past two decades.

MPLS gives the package a label and a class on the outside – in this instance the label would simply say ‘Perth’, and the class could be emergency medical supplies. The postman then sends this package on a predetermined path (the freeway) to the next node, without having to open the contents and read the full address until it arrives at its destination. By adding a class to the package, it sets Quality of Service priority and tells the postman what to do when the roads are congested.

These programmed instructions greatly reduce the time taken to transfer the package, in the case of MPLS this decreases the forwarding overhead of the network routers, allowing it to process data quickly and more efficiently.

MPLS is a private connection typically outsourced and managed by a service provider who ensures Quality of Service, network performance, and availability. Compared to using ADSL internet at home, where you share that link with the other houses on your street, MPLS is a private, enclosed network. Like using a private courier instead of Australia Post to send your parcels, MPLS is faster, more secure, but also more expensive, especially due to growing number of users sending and receiving packages to different locations all at the same time.

As the world transitions to hybrid and remote work, there is an ever-increasing amount of traffic due to the adoption of public and private cloud services, cloud applications, Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS), and remote access to data centres. While it is still a reliable technology, scaling an MPLS network to meet this demand means having to purchase additional links which can be costly.

Software-defined Wide Area Network (SD-WAN) is a cloud delivered solution that allow business locations to connect through multiple service providers. It can aggregate them to create a single, seamless connection that provides greater control. SD-WAN is not about replacing MPLS technology, but to provide a software overlay that runs over standard network transport, and this can include MPLS, broadband, and 5G internet. By using SD-WAN, organisations can extend their network infrastructure to hybrid and multi-cloud environments and accelerate their transition to the cloud.