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 What are the similarities of MPLS, Frame Relay, VPN, LAN Extension and Ethernet-Over-Fiber services?

Written by: K. Kramer - Aug 29, 2016


MPLS is a type of protocol run on the backbone level, that in general terms allows a carrier to section out part of an IP backbone to segregate general IP traffic from their proprietary customer VPN traffic. This allows a carrier's customer to get VPN services across a single carrier's network, without their data ever seeing the 'public' side of the network, or mingling with public Internet traffic.

In a legacy/old school data network (WAN - Wide Area Network), customer's typically used Frame Relay or ATM, both of which packetize the customer's data, and route their data through private networks and switches, but running more than one customer's data on the large shared, but secure network. This was typically less expensive than Point-to-Point Private Lines, especially with multiple locations, or customers with geographically dispersed locations. For example, a customer with 2 locations that aren't far from each other (same state, neighboring states) may choose to get a private line to create a WAN. Whereas, a customer with multiple locations across the country would likely get Frame Relay. This is mainly because with a private line, you are paying for the two loops at either end of each connection, and the physical-unshared connection (T1, etc.) between the two locations, so the carrier loses real-estate in his network to provision the circuit all the way from end to end, so the more connections, or the more distance between two end points, the more real-estate the circuits take up in the network, thus more cost. Additionally, if you terminate multiple private lines into a single 'home' site, the huge router necessary at the 'home' site becomes very expensive to terminate T1 circuits from dozens of remote sites. Whereas with Frame Relay, you pay for the loop at each location, and the port into the network in a nearby location (much in the same way you pay for port and loop into an Internet network, but in this case you are paying for port and loop into a private frame relay network), and then it doesn't matter as much where your data is going between the locations, because you are using a shared, but private network. The customer is secure with his data, it's a private network, but it costs less because it's sharing resources with other customers, so the carrier doesn't charge as much.

Essentially, frame relay is a legacy version of a VPN, a Virtual Private Network. It's private in that it is secure, but it's virtual in that it uses shared resources, reducing costs.

The more common definition for VPN is assuming it is actually an IP-VPN, or a VPN that runs over Internet Protocol. With an IP-VPN, a customer can use Internet Protocol to create a WAN between multiple locations. In the beginning, an IP-VPN was done primarily using the same network as the carrier's public IP network, therefore, additional security such as VPN tunneling was created to be used in conjunction with firewalls to create a secure connection between the various end points. Sometimes companies would provision IP-VPNs over special Internet connections that were only used for the VPN, and not used for regular Internet traffic, to increase security and avoid a hacker coming in over their 'public' Internet connection, and tapping into their private WAN/VPN accessing main resources.

Then carriers began to run services like MPLS on their backbones, which allowed the customer to have more security because it acted more like the old frame relay networks, in that it ran over a secure/private portion of the network, but it didn't cost the carrier as much to run MPLS over their existing IP network, so the cost of the VPN was less in comparison to a legacy service like frame relay. Now, some of our carriers offer 'split-tunneling' which is also known by other terms, but this enables a customer that was both public and private IP services to come over one connection. In other words, if they don't need more than 1/2 a T1 on average for either the public Internet usage or the VPN to other offices, they could get a single Internet T1 from the carrier at each of these locations, subscribe to a managed firewall/vpn service with MPLS, and send their public Internet traffic out one tunnel/path, and send their VPN traffic over the other tunnel/path to the MPLS private VPN network to their other locations.

In regards to fiber, as mentioned, it is a transmission media, like as opposed to copper. With fiber, carriers, CLECs, etc. will run SONET or other things to effectively manage and send traffic across their network. Unless someone is getting dark-fiber on a wholesale level, they will never need to use SONET, or anything else considered carrier grade.

However, in some cities where a LEC or a CLEC has fiber in a building, they are offering various types of Ethernet connections off of that fiber to individual customers.

Sometimes they will sell the customer an Ethernet port into the Internet, allowing the customer to use speeds of 1-10Mbps, or higher speeds up to 45Mbps and beyond. Because it's running ethernet between the customer premises and the CO, or the POP, it is not physically taking up as much real estate in the last mile network, or to the POP, compared to a T1, bonded T1, or DS3 for example, therefore the 'loop' cost is significantly reduced or eliminated. And depending on the carrier, it may allow additional discounts for the Internet port, compared to traditional fixed services.

You could also use this type of Ethernet over fiber service to create a WAN. From what I've heard, this is more common in dealing with more than one location that is within the same geographic area, where a LEC or a CLEC has a lot of fiber in a metro area, if the customer has more than one location in a building with fiber from that carrier, then the carrier can help them set up a WAN using Ethernet ports off of their fiber.

I like to compare this to being in a data center vs being off site, and getting bandwidth. If you host your own Web site or other server, and you need connectivity to it, you will typically buy a T1, DS3 or whatever you need to get bandwidth to your office, or hosting center. If you collocate your server in a third party data center, then they are the ones with the DS3s, or OC3s, or whatever, and they sell you bandwidth per Mbps, and hand it off to you via an Ethernet port. They don't run a T1 from one end of the building to the other, in this case, instead they aggregate their customers' traffic from all their servers across an ethernet network, and send and receive packets from a central point via their DS3, or OC3 etc.

When you subscribe to an Ethernet type service, whether it's for Internet connectivity, or for data networks like WANs, MANs, etc., then you are getting an Ethernet connection back through the carrier's network and being routed wherever you're supposed to go, much in the same way as you would if you were collocated in their data center, but in your case, they've extended the service to your office because they have the ability to provision Ethernet over their fiber.

This is very limited in scope, however. Especially when you consider one may be in either a suburban or rural area. And even when one has locations in a metro area, they may not have fiber in the building from a participating carrier, and even if they do, maybe they could get an Ethernet connection to the Internet, but in order to get an Ethernet WAN/MAN, all of their respective locations would have to be in a 'LIT' building from the SAME carrier (LEC, CLEC, etc.)..