Agencies warm to new standard for networking
- By Joab Jackson
- Sep 25, 2003
Companies using MPLS could gain competitive edge on bids
Bruce Fleming of Verizon said about 10 percent of his clients' customized solutions are MPLS-based.
Henrik G. de Gyor
A new telecommunications protocol is on the rise that will enable integrators to lower their costs and give government customers greater control over their voice and data networks.
Although multiprotocol label switching, or MPLS, has been around for several years, only recently has the federal government shown an interest in its use, according to industry observers. Previously, many agencies have been skeptical about running multiple network services, such as voice and data, over the same physical infrastructure.
But now some agencies are putting out project bids that would allow contractors to use MPLS as a vehicle for managed converged networks.
"Agencies are starting to test the water," said Robert Collet, chief engineer for AT&T Corp.'s government services unit.
For instance, a request for comment released Sept. 17 by the Agriculture Department shows the government's interest in the emerging networking protocol, said Wesley Kaplow, chief technology officer for the government services unit of Qwest Communications International Inc., Denver.
The contract, called the Universal Telecommunications Network, will cover telecommunications services for all Agriculture Department offices. The agency is weighing ideas about the best way to implement this network. There is no date for a request for proposals, and no value has been estimated yet.
However, Kaplow said the agency's request for comment is worded in such a way that it is possible for the winning contractor to use MPLS to underbid a competitor proposing a more traditional, leased-circuit solution.
For integrators, government acceptance of MPLS is good news. When bidding on contracts that combine voice and data services, integrators can offer the two services on one infrastructure, perhaps even a less costly public network, saving money in the process.
Telecom providers such as Verizon Communications Inc. have long understood the advantage of consolidating multiple services on one backbone. These days, it is the telecommunications service providers who make up most of the buyers of Cisco Systems Inc.'s line of MPLS networking equipment, said Craig Hill, a Cisco consulting systems engineer for the San Jose, Calif., company's federal practice.
However, the equipment could be used on the enterprise level as well.
"MPLS would be a way that [systems integrators] could offer a larger variety of Internet protocol-based services that could differentiate them from other integrators," Hill said.
"All MPLS boils down to is another way to carve up bandwidth," Kaplow said.
In the past, an agency needing to connect disparate offices with voice and data services often would lease circuits. This approach can be expensive, especially in light of the more efficient ways of using bandwidth that have come into vogue.
In the 1990s, protocols such as frame relay and asynchronous transfer mode, or ATM, were introduced as a way to multiplex network traffic. By not dedicating a circuit for each call or connection, traffic could be aggregated on a shared channel. Because users do not deploy all their allotted capacity at any given time, the physical infrastructure could be used more efficiently.
"The more bits you can transfer through a certain pipe in a second, the lower the cost will be, because you are using your resources more efficiently," said Bruce Fleming, technology officer at the federal network systems group of Verizon of New York.
Technologies such as ATM and frame relay used "virtual circuits," or pre-established routes over a physical infrastructure. Virtual circuits can guarantee that a certain amount of bandwidth always will be available.
However, once set in place, an ATM or frame relay network cannot easily be reconfigured. When one node goes down, the entire network may be at risk.
Internet protocol, another emerging multiplexing protocol, addressed this problem quite well. IP was attractive because it was dynamic. If one node were to go down, traffic would be instantly rerouted elsewhere. An IP network could be very resilient -- and cheap as well. A voice-over-IP network could save 20 percent to 30 percent in intra-agency long-distance charges, said Diana Gowen, vice president of civilian and military networks for WorldCom Inc., Ashburn, Va.
However, IP networks could not offer the guaranteed level of service that ATM and frame relay did. If too many people used an IP network all at once, service would slow. Calls could be dropped.
MPLS, developed by the Internet Engineering Task Force standards body, was designed to combine the flexibility of IP networks with the quality of service guarantees of an ATM or frame relay network.
"It is the best of both worlds," Collet said.
On the one hand, MPLS offers the flexibility of IP networks.
"You can traffic engineer the backbone," Collet said. "If there is congestion around Detroit, we can configure around it."
For the agency with offices around the country, MPLS means a more flexible infrastructure. MPLS routers at the edge of a network create labels for networking data packets, which routers inside that network use to forward the packets, Hill said.
Labels eliminate the need for reconfiguring routers when redirecting traffic away from trouble areas. The label system can update routers with new information on where to forward packets.
On the other hand, MPLS can offer the assurance that an ATM or frame relay network can provide, advocates said.
Although Internet-based networking promises savings by combing voice and data networks, agencies have been hesitant to use Internet telephony because IP networks aren't able to prioritize traffic. A general's phone call shouldn't be cut off because someone else is downloading Web pages, for instance.
MPLS offers the feature of assuring that one type of traffic, such as voice phone calls, receives higher priority on the network than another, such as requests for Web pages.
"It allows you to prioritize different classes of service," Fleming said. "You can define a specific class of service. If a router receives a destination address from a certain source, then it would know that traffic has the highest priority," Fleming said.
Security is another concern with IP networks. Traditionally, agencies, particularly those in defense and intelligence, are hesitant to place sensitive information on public networks, even though the savings might be considerable.
"MPLS solves the problem of assuring that you have a secure tunnel," said Steve Garrison, director of marketing for networking equipment provider Riverstone Networks Inc., Santa Clara, Calif.
"We're seeing a lot of RFPs indicate that this is an acceptable way of partitioning a network," Kaplow said.
Fleming said about 10 percent of his clients' customized solutions are MPLS-based.
The Defense Department's Defense Information Systems Agency is one early adopter, Collet said. AT&T works as a subcontractor to Science Applications International Corp., San Diego, on the Global Information Grid-Bandwidth Expansion program for DISA.
In this case, DISA has decided to build its own network, acquiring unused fiber-optic cable and purchasing the equipment to run the network in-house
One way an agency can test out MPLS is through the use of virtual private networks, or VPNs. These are private networks that run over public networks, such as the Internet.
Of those government agencies looking to deploy VPNs, "I would say nearly all of them are asking for an MPLS solution," Collet said.
"There are at least four or five agencies with procurements that are active or ready to become active that are looking for an MPLS solution," Collet said, declining to name the prospects AT&T is following. "They're asking for a managed network. They want to own the equipment. They want a provider like AT&T to system integrate, deploy the network and either turn the keys over to them or operate it for them."
On Sept. 9, the Air Force released a draft solicitation of its $5.5 billion Network Centric Solutions contract, a servicewide telecommunications procurement that calls for VPN services, according to government IT research company Federal Sources Inc., McLean, Va.
The National Imagery and Mapping Agency is in the early stages of developing its Computer Network Defense contract, which it expects to award in April 2004, according to Federal Sources. This contract calls for VPN services as well.
"By specifying MPLS, agencies are giving themselves the tools to support voice, data and video," Collet said.
Staff Writer Joab Jackson can be reached at
Joab Jackson is the senior technology editor for Government Computer News.