How do you evaluate MPLS providers?

by. Kirk Drake

I have worked in financial institutions and technology for my entire career.  Overtime I have seen the transition from Frame Relay and ISDN lines to the current Ethernet, Fiber and MPLS world.  One of the things that my clients regularly ask me is “how should we evaluate MPLS carriers.”  Time and time I have wracked my brain on this one as there really is no clear way to evaluate or compare carriers.  In fact, most MPLS networks, by the very nature of deregulation are not transparent and hence comparable at all.  Depending on the building and locations an MPLS network can be made up of lots of different carriers.  To actually answer this question, I think we need to peel back the onion a bit.

What is MPLS?

MPLS, or Multi-Protocol Layered Switching is more like flying than networking.  MPLS is a network transport approach independent of specific communication protocols that is used by the router to communicate over existing telecom technologies, basically some wires or strands of glass.  In many ways, you can think of this question as it relates to airlines.  Do you want to fly Southwest, Allegiant, United or the Concord.  All airlines are certified, use jet fuel, have flight operations, etc. but the experience is vastly different.    Sure a regional carrier might be ok if you are just flying for an hour (or there aren’t any other options) but you might not want to fly them for 8 hours.  If you are flying abroad you might want to go in first class for the long flight but you might also be willing to fly coach and stay an extra day.  Ultimately, each component in flying has a similar impact on the experience much like an MPLS carrier.   Flying to LA from DC on Southwest is painful as you can’t fly direct, but flying on United while direct means no-WiFi.  Everything is a trade-off in the MPLS world and with carriers trying to meet a diverse community of needs (credit unions vs. hospitals vs. manufacturing) its no wonder it is so tough to compare.

Ultimately, MPLS doesn’t matter when you are going between two locations.  It starts to matter when you are going to multiple locations and it matters more over long-distances and larger pipes.  Essentially, MPLS enables you to share common points in your network and enables all end-points to be able to talk to each other without physically building circuits between all of them.  The traditional design was either hub and spoke which meant that all communication had to come back to a central office. The other option was ring design which meant that there were two paths to everything but the furthest locations were the slowest.   MPLS fixed most of that by enabling direct paths between all of the offices but after that it gets confusing.  Essentially there are probably about twenty five different variables that will impact your business and are different among all carriers while there are only maybe 3 or 4 common components.

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