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MPLS VPN Network Advantages
How and why MPLS VPN has become the network of choice for linking multiple business sites

By: John Shepler

How do companies communicate among geographically diverse business sites securely? They use private networks or virtually private networks. MPLS networks are emerging as the virtually private networks of choice. Let’s see why.

Private Networks
The ultimate in performance and security is the totally private network. Private means for your use only. You don’t buy a private network, you build one. Many companies have done this by setting up a star network with a central router at their headquarters location. Each remote location connects to headquarters over a private point to point line, such as a T1, DS3, OC3 or Ethernet private line. It is up to the IT staff to manage this network and make sure all locations have the bandwidth and ability to reach other locations that they need.

High Costs For Private Networking
What’s wrong with this? Not a thing if you haveinfinitely deep pockets. The cost of all those private line services mounts up as more locations are added. Don’t forget the staffing cost to keep everything running. You’ll need to buy lines that have enough bandwidth to meet peak loads, meaning that most of the time they’ll be running at a fraction of the maximum capacity. You’ll be paying for that maximum capacity as if you were using in continuously.

The Internet Alternative
The staggering cost of proprietary private networks has encouraged many companies to look for lower cost alternatives that still get the job done. One alluring option is to piggyback on the public Internet, arguably the largest and lowest cost network solution in the world. You could just connect all your sites over the Internet, but that makes management squeamish for good reason. The unregulated Internet is something like the Old West, with stagecoach robbers lurking behind every rock. In this case it’s cyber criminals and curious hackers drooling at the thought of rifling through your corporate files.

Add Tunneling to Improve Security
Does this mean that using the Internet for wide ranging connectivity is an unacceptable option? No, not at all. The trick to using an unprotected public resource like the Internet is to install your own security. You do this by encrypting your packets so that they are unreadable to anyone who is not authorized. It’s SSL encryption that makes it possible to buy and sell on the Web with confidence. The general term for using encryption to protect data on a public network is tunneling.

Limitations of Internet VPNs
So, is tunneling through the Internet to get from site to site the best cost solution? Yes, if cost and/or the ability to connect with the public at large is your highest priority. But what about performance? Ah, I’m afraid the Internet does leave something to be desired in that regard. Bandwidth, latency, jitter, and bit errors are completely uncontrolled. You may not care if all you are doing is serving up Web pages to people on DSL or Cable connections. But trying to optimize productivity when you are running your critical corporate data to corporate offices, factories and warehouses around the world can turn into an exercise in frustration. Oh, you want to establish high quality two-way video and telephone connections on the same network? Good luck with that.

MPLS VPN Advantages
This is where MPLS VPN networks rush in to save the day. An MPLS network is not for the general public. You have to pay more than Internet prices to use it and it only serves its clients. What you get for the extra cost is a privately run high performance network that is carefully engineered to support voice, video and data. There’s no encryption as we think of it on the Internet, but an MPLS network is considered to be a VPN. Why is that?

Privacy is Built Into The Technology
The answer is in the technology. MPLS stands for Multi-Protocol Label Switching. IP routers are not used to direct packets from place to place. Instead, each packet gets a special label as a wrapper. That label is used to route the packet instead of the IP header information. Labels are added as packets enter the network and removed as they leave. In a sense, the packets are protected by their labels in that they only travel paths set up in advance by the network operator and are unreadable by other clients or external snoops.

Enhancing MPLS Security
Most of the time, MPLS technology and network operators provide enough security that encryption isn’t needed. Even so, if you are particularly sensitive about the privacy of your data you can always encrypt your packets before they enter the network and decrypt them on the other end.

Cost Advantages
The reason that MPLS VPN networks are replacingproprietary point to point networks is that they offer a significant cost reduction. While you have all the bandwidth you need, any unused resources are available to support other clients of the network. The cost of the entire network is spread over the total user base, which makes the pricing attractive for you.

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