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MPLS standards war could cause downtime

Enterprises and service providers will be hoping that two warring standards bodies can next week sort out a network technology problem that could lead to downtime.

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

MPLS is a rising traffic technology in the enterprise and service provider market. It is used to improve the quality of service in data packet delivery. MPLS allows users to set aside network space for specific data packets, to make sure the most important users get the best access to applications and data.

It can also be used to ensure that voice over IP traffic is given priority over converged voice and data networks, to avoid delayed packets causing broken conversations.

But a developing problem is arising as a result of the ITU's plan to introduce a new MPLS protocol to better support carrier network backbones.

The IETF claims the ITU's proposed Transport-MPLS (T-MPLS) specification will not work with the routers and switches that carriers and enterprises have already installed, which are based on the IETF's own established 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 which indicates which protocol is being used to enable the router or switch to process the data 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 sorting out which traffic is which - despite Ethernet networks in enterprises having to interpret which MPLS protocol is being used when traffic comes onto their network from service providers.

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

The IETF first raised concerns about the possible problem last year, but has now drawn a line in the sand as the ITU moves closer to ratifying its new standard.

The T-MPLS working group is scheduled to start a week-long meeting in Germany next week, with several IETF delegates expected to take part.

A large number of representatives from carriers and network hardware suppliers will join the proceedings, which are designed to try and find a solution to the impasse.


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