How MPLS Works

MPLS is a connection-oriented technology that allows routers to make protocol-independent forwarding decisions based on fixed-length labels.

The use of MPLS labels enables routers to avoid the processing overhead of delving deeply into each packet and performing complex route lookup operations based upon destination IP addresses.

MPLS protocols are designed primarily for routed IP networks and work together to establish multiple, unidirectional Label Switched Path (LSP) connections through an MPLS network. Once established, an LSP can be used to carry IP traffic or to tunnel other types of traffic, such as bridged MAC frames. The tunnel aspects of LSPs, which are important in supporting virtual private networks (VPNs), result from the fact that forwarding is based solely on labels and not on any other information carried within the packet.

The MPLS protocols operate on Label Switch Routers (LSRs). The router where an LSP originates is called the ingress LSR, while the router where an LSP terminates is called the egress LSR. Ingress and egress LSRs are also referred to as Label Edge Routers (LERs). For any particular LSP, a router is either an ingress LER, an intermediate LSR, or an egress LER. However, a router may function as an LER for one LSP, while simultaneously functioning as an intermediate LSR for another LSP.

MPLS Network illustrates an MPLS network.

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MPLS Network

In an MPLS environment, incoming packets are initially assigned labels by the ingress LER. The labels allow more efficient packet handling by MPLS-capable routers at each point along the forwarding path.

An MPLS label essentially consists of a short fixed-length value carried within each packet header that identifies a Forwarding Equivalence Class (FEC). The FEC tells the router how to handle the packet. An FEC is defined to be a group of packets that are forwarded in the same manner. Examples of FECs include an IP prefix, a host address, or a VLAN ID.



The label concept in MPLS is analogous to other connection identifiers, such as an ATM VPI/VCI or a Frame Relay DLCI.

By mapping to a specific FEC, the MPLS label efficiently provides the router with all of the local link information needed for immediate forwarding to the next hop. MPLS creates an LSP along which each LSR can make forwarding decisions based solely upon the content of the labels. At each hop, the LSR simply strips off the Incoming label and applies a new Outgoing label that tells the next LSR how to forward the packet. This allows packets to be tunneled through an IP network.