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What is multiprotocol label switching (MPLS) and how does it work?

Multiprotocol label switching (MPLS) is a network technology that improves the efficiency and performance of data packet transmission. Telecommunication companies use it to connect to their remote sites, while ISPs use it for layer 2/layer 3 traffic segmentation within different tenants. It’s been around for more than 20 years, and many businesses still rely on it. What is MPLS, and is it still reliable?

What is multiprotocol label switching (MPLS) and how does it work?

How does multiprotocol label switching work?

MPLS definition

Multiprotocol label switching (MPLS) is a data forwarding technology enterprises use to connect their remote sites. MPLS directs data through the shortest path based on “labels” instead of network addresses. It assigns labels to each data packet and controls the path the packet follows.

MPLS (multiprotocol label switching) is a data forwarding system that assigns labels to each data packet in transmission. When you visit a website on your browser, your web requests are divided into packets, each carrying information about its destination and where it’s coming from. Routers forward packets to other routers, which is how packets move across the network. Labels assigned by MLPS determine how that packet should travel, creating a private network.

The labels used in MPLS are unique to each network, and are assigned by a central control plane that manages the routing of data across the network. Since the packets are labeled between their transition from layer 2 (responsible for transferring data between nodes) to layer 3 (responsible for packet forwarding and routing), MPLS is often called a “layer 2.5 protocol.”

Pros and cons of MPLS

Here is a list of pros and cons of MLPS that you should take into account if you are considering using it:


  • Speed. Since packets in MPLS networks travel in predetermined ways, routers don’t need to perform an IP lookup in every step. This means the whole routing process consumes fewer computing resources compared with “normal” routing. MPLS can be beneficial when speed is an important factor, especially when running real-time applications.
  • Quality. MPLS has QoS (quality of service) options that help packets achieve better performance and efficiency when they travel across the network.
  • Remote connection. Since MPLS is cloud hosted, you can add new remote connections without having to invest in additional hardware.
  • Reduced network congestion. MPLS divides web requests between different routes, thus avoiding network congestion.
  • Improved uptime. If a downtime occurs, MPLS can switch traffic to an alternative route if it’s available.


  • User experience. MPLS requires extensive configuration on your router. Setting up the MPLS network yourself is only advisable if you know what you’re doing. Otherwise, leave this task to an IT administrator.
  • Cost. MPLS solutions can be costly because you’ll have to pay for your data every month. Internet service providers can set up the whole MPLS infrastructure and maintain it for you, but this will obviously increase the cost.
  • Less control. Since your ISP configures your network for you, you don’t have full control over it.
  • Accessibility. MPLS is not suited for SaaS or cloud applications but for point-to-point connectivity.
  • Deployment. It takes several months to deploy MPLS if your company’s offices are located in different countries or even continents.

What’s the difference between SD-WAN and MPLS?

Software-defined wide-area networking (SD-WAN) is a software-based approach to managing a WAN (wide area network). However, it’s more advanced than MPLS. SD-WAN is more secure, is less expensive, and offers better performance.

Both MPLS and SD-WAN are used for network connectivity: connecting users working from home with headquarters or remote branch offices.

Some IT specialists claim that in the future, MPLS will be pushed out by SD-WAN, but in truth, they’re not exactly identical technologies and both have their use cases.


MPLS and VPN (virtual private network) are both networking technologies used to improve the performance and security of data transmission over networks, but they serve different purposes and provide different benefits. MPLS optimizes network traffic across a high-speed WAN, while a VPN creates a secure and private connection between two devices over the internet.

You can use both MPLS to connect different branches of your company and a VPN to protect your employees online. Since MPLS doesn’t encrypt your traffic, it’s worth considering VPN solutions to ensure that your data is protected in transit.

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