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Developed in the late 1990's as a faster alternative to traditional IP routing, MPLS has since become the standard for many of the big providers around the world.
So, what is MPLS?
It stands for "Multi-Protocol Label Switching". To understand exactly what that means, you have to start by learning what a label is.
In MPLS, data is packed up into a nice, neat packet that it can travel in along the network. On the front of that packet is a label that tells the network where the data is coming from and where it needs to go. Consider it to be just like those gift labels you see on Christmas presents, with a "To" and a "From".
Thanks to the label, the network can simply send the data on its way -- without having to look inside the packet, figure out what's in it, look up the information on a routing table, and then send it on its way. Instead, MPLS data can go from one "hop" to another in a fraction of a second.
What about the "Multi-Protocol" part?
That means it can handle any type of data. No matter what kind of data you send and receive, your MPLS network can handle it.
That versatility extends to the connection, too. You can access MPLS networks in several ways -- though a T1 line, an Ethernet connection, a DSL line, frame relay, ATM, etc.
How does the "Switching" come into play?
In order to truly understand what is MPLS, you have to understand how the switching works. Basically, it refers to the way that data is transferred from hop to hop. Once the packet arrives at its first destination hop, it changes its label so that the network knows where to send it next.
It's kind of like "re-gifting". The next time you get a present, slap a different gift tag on it, and give it to someone else, you're working just like an MPLS network!
Since all of the labels get changed along the way, they can each take unique paths along the network. As a result, some data can get priority service, while less-important stuff can take a less-direct route. Either way, your data will only take a few seconds to arrive at its destination. Thankfully, MPLS networks are some of the fastest technology on the planet!
Now that you know what MPLS is and how it works, you probably wonder how you ever managed to live without it!