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What Is MPLS, and What Does It Mean for Your Communications Systems?

As if there weren't enough acronyms floating around the tech world, you've likely noticed some buzz about MPLS in networking corners of the web. A quick Google search will tell you it's used to facilitate packet transport at a more efficient level, but is it OSI layer 2, or layer 3?

Colleagues sitting at a conference table, viewing a screen during a video conference.
What is MPLS? It's elevated quality of service for your communications systems, throughout your organization.

What Is MPLS?

Multiprotocol label switching (MPLS) is a technique for routing network packets. In a traditional, non-MPLS network, packets are routed at each hop. As such, every router along a particular packet's route will decide for itself where to send the packet based on its header and the router's own information.

Though routed IP networks have served users well in the past, modern network environments tend to require a bit more control. This is where MPLS shines. Instead of relying on independent router decisions for packet forwarding, MPLS appends labels that govern its movement.

Think of this like a mass transit system: Different bus lines travel different routes. You know exactly which stops you'll hit if you get on the "A" line. The bus driver doesn't have to reroute every passenger based on each person's desired destination. The driver simply knows the general route all "A" line passengers require.

To be more specific, MPLS networks assign a forwarding equivalence class (FEC) to each packet as it enters the network. All routers within the network are equipped with tables describing what to do with each FEC type. As a packet makes its way along the FEC path, each router updates the outer label and forwards it onto the next hop. At the final MPLS router, the header is examined and the packet is sent on to the next layer.

For those wondering, MPLS is considered somewhere between OSI layer 2 and 3. Just consider it layer 2.5.

Why Should You Care?

Now that you're up to speed on MPLS as a data-carrying technique, can you see why it's so important for businesses using high-performance telecommunications and unified communications? The answer is actually pretty straightforward: quality of service.

In a typical IP routed network, traffic is directed by scant header information. This prevents granular control over the flow of packets. Video and voice traffic is handled much the same as other types of network traffic.

In an MPLS environment, you can add information to each packet that dictates how it's handled. Do you need consistently high performance from your telecommunications platform? That's easy. Simply map those labels to low-latency paths. Conversely, you can prevent YouTube traffic from clogging high-priority paths the same way.

There's another tangible benefit that consistently high quality of service brings to the table: ROI. As enterprises continue to rely more and more on high-performance telecommunications and unified communications, they must simultaneously maintain networks that can adequately support them to achieve any appreciable ROI. Network World lends support to this claim, reporting 59 percent of executives are giving high priority to "latency-sensitive applications such as VoIP, collaboration, and video" when making network investment decisions. In a cloud communications environment, a private MPLS network can help maintain consistent quality for communications systems throughout the organization.

So, what is MPLS? Ultimately, it's a foundational element to successful digital communication. The ability to reduce packet loss while enabling consistent performance makes it an ideal component of any potential unified communications platform. So, if you're in the market for a new enterprise business communications system, adding an MPLS checkbox to your wish list may not be a bad idea after all.

Contact Vonage Business to learn more about how MPLS can help your company.

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