Standards spat could cause MPLS downtime

The Internet Engineering Task Force has locked horns with the International Telecommunication Union over future MPLS standards

Enterprises will be hoping that two warring standards bodies can next week sort out a problem with the widely used MPLS protocol that threatens to cause widespread disruption in companies' wide area networks.

The Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) has locked horns with the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) over future MPLS (Multi-Protocol Label Switching) standards.

MPLS is a technique used in many enterprise wide area networks(WANs) and nearly all carrier WANs to improve quality of service for critical applications.

But a problem is arising as a result of the ITU's plan to introduce a new MPLS protocol that it says will better support carrier backbones. The new protocol is covered by a proposed Transport-MPLS (T-MPLS) specification.

The IETF claims that T-MPLS will not work with existing carrier and enterprise routers and switches, which are based on the IETF's own MPLS standards.

The problem is that T-MPLS uses the same EtherType as MPLS, which could potentially cause operational problems in networks. An EtherType is part of the Ethernet network standard that indicates which protocol is being used to enable the router or switch to process the packet.

The IETF wants the ITU to use a different EtherType. But the ITU has so far refused, claiming that carefully planned converged networks would have no problem identifying traffic.

The IETF, however, says deployed networks never stay exactly the same in the field, and the ITU's T-MPLS could cause downtime when networks are upgraded or changed. Existing MPLS kit could also face problems with new T-MPLS traffic, says the IETF.

The T-MPLS working group is scheduled to begin a week-long meeting in Germany next week, with several IETF delegates expected to take part to try and find a solution to the impasse.

Suppliers will be hoping that the growing MPLS market does not take a knock from the uncertainty. The Ethernet and IP MPLS VPN services markets hit £10.7bn last year, according to Infonetics Research.

The analyst group says that businesses are increasingly replacing legacy services, such as ATM and frame relay, with Ethernet and IP MPLS VPN services, which are more flexible and scalable.

Michael Howard, an analyst at Infonetics, said: "Ethernet and IP/MPLS are the layer 2 and layer 3 service protocols of choice for today's data service networks. Small and medium businesses and remote and branch offices of large businesses especially like Ethernet and IP MPLS VPNs because they offer considerably more bandwidth with little or no increased WAN costs."

UK companies that have recently taken advantage of MPLS include plant hire firm Hewden and corporate law firm Norton Rose.

At Hewden, BT has installed and is managing an entirely new MPLS network across 100 sites.

At Norton Rose, MPLS is being used to support its strategy of moving to a more collaborative global communications environment. An IP-based unified communications system supplied by integrator Affiniti uses MPLS to support a VoIP network and deliver improved data-centre and operations management.