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Internet of Tomorrow: MPLS

Alok Saxena
Sunday, October 27, 2002
Alok Saxena
INTERNET TRAFFIC IS INCREASING EVERYDAY. And with increasing traffic comes increasing network demand. With growing demand for voice, data, and video carried over the Internet and each traffic type having its own characteristics, there are some difficult challenges facing the Internet.

Traditionally, internet traffic routing (or forwarding) is done based on a protocol call Internet Protocol (IP). Although IP has been an extremely successful and widely-deployed technology, it is too slow to handle large traffic loads and has bottlenecks when it comes to keeping up with the variety of traffic types and the demands placed on it. When IP is pushed to its limits, the network suffers from lost traffic and lost connections resulting in an overall poor performance.

A new protocol called Multi-Protocol Label Switching (MPLS) is gaining popularity to address the issues and concerns with IP routing. MPLS is a very simple and elegant method based on the idea of label-switching. It is designed to handle growing traffic and a wide variety of traffic types. MPLS is not meant to replace, but to complement, IP in the networks of today and tomorrow.

So what is this new idea of label-switching? The idea is analogous to the use of ZIP codes in the U.S. postal system. When we mail a letter to John Smith, 123 Some street, Some City-State, 99999, the postal network does not process the entire address. Just the ZIP code 99999 is used by the postal network to figure out where the letter is destined. Once it reaches the ZIP area 99999, the address (123 Some street) is used to forward the letter to the final destination. To compare this with the world of internet, the letter is analogous to a packet of data and the street address (123 Some street) is analogous to the IP address in that packet.

The IP forwarding makes use of the IP address inside of a packet to make the forwarding decision. The ZIP code in the postal example is analogous to the label that MPLS uses to forward a whole bunch of packets to the same destination without even looking at its IP address. Once this bunch of packets reaches the end-path designated by the label, the IP address is used to deliver the packets to the end-users.

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