Introduction To Flow Switching

Multi-Protocol Label Switching (MPLS) is a mechanism that when added to a routed IP network enables packets to be switched in hardware at high speed. It’s thought to be a Layer 2 technology, although in many circles it’s called Layer 2 and a half since it mostly functions between the Data-Link Layer and the Network Layer of the OSI Reference Model.

Lots of vendors had similar but proprietary technologies which became the foundation for MPLS, for instance, Cisco had Tag Switching and IBM had the comparable technology called ARIS (Aggregate Route-Based IP Switching). In 1997 a working group was formed under the advice of the IETF (Internet Engineering Task Force), and finally, the name MPLS was determined.

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An MPLS label is a brief 32-bit identifier that’s used to switch packets in an MPLS domain. When used with ATM (Asynchronous Transfer Mode) the tag replaces the VPI/VCI, and a similar scenario happens when MPLS is used with some other Data-Link Layer technology like X.25 and Frame Relay.

When Multi-Protocol Label Switching is used with Ethernet, PPP, FDDI or Token Ring, the 32-bit Tag is added between the Data-Link Layer and Network Layer headers. A tag used in this way is often known as a ‘Shim Label’. Labels are typically changed switch by change as the packet traverses the LSD (Label Switched Domain), and that is where the expression Label Swapping comes from.

The original idea of MPLS was to combine the intelligence of Layer 3 Routing with the rate of Layer two Switching so as to deliver a high throughput of Layer 3 packets. The technology is maturing and packet flows using the exact same FEC (Forward Equivalence Class) can be changed across specific paths to pay for that packet flow the proper Quality of Service.