MPLS vs. Ethernet: Which WAN connectivity option is best?

This MPLS vs. Ethernet list gives enterprise IT a breakdown of the pros and cons for using these technologies in the wide area network (WAN).

Editor's Note: The MPLS vs. Ethernet technology comparison below helps IT engineers and managers weigh the pros and cons of MPLS and Ethernet for WAN connectivity.

The two most popular wide area network (WAN) connectivity options are MPLS  and Carrier Ethernet. MPLS services typically refer to Layer 3 MPLS VPN services, while Carrier Ethernet services include virtual private LAN service (VPLS), Gigabit and metro Ethernet. Depending on what (or where) your organization needs to connect -- whether it is a remote office to your headquarters or a backup site to a branch -- some service provider WAN connectivity options are more beneficial than others.

In part 1 of this series on WAN connectivity, we discussed the advantages of MPLS. In part 2, we considered the advantages of using Ethernet connectivity for the WAN. To help organizations analyze the differences between the two, this side-by-side MPLS vs. Ethernet comparison provides a quick overview of the pros and cons of each WAN connectivity option:

MPLS vs. Ethernet for the WAN

Cost MPLS typically costs more than Ethernet but less than T1 lines. Ethernet is typically more affordable than MPLS.
Scalability MPLS can scale to over thousands of sites. Ethernet can scale to up to hundreds of sites.
Common applications MPLS is best and most widely used to interconnect data centers with branch offices and branches to other branches. Ethernet is best for interconnecting data centers.
WAN routing MPLS allows businesses to leave WAN routing to the service provider and keep fewer WAN engineers on staff. Ethernet gives WAN engineers control and responsibility over routing.
WAN protocol behavior MPLS can handle any-to-any connectivity, including voice and video. Ethernet offers low-latency and high-throughput, which is ideal for disaster recovery.
Quality of service MPLS has quality of service (QoS) options to enable preferential treatment of latency-sensitive traffic like VoIP. Network engineers can bypass QoS complexity by hooking switches directly to Ethernet pipes.
Service level agreements MPLS services come with service-level agreements (SLAs) that include delivery guarantees, unlike consumer broadband. IT professionals should either ask for an SLA for their Ethernet service or take WAN application delivery into their own hands.
WAN management Using MPLS for WAN connectivity requires that all network devices and management tools be compatible with both MPLS and Ethernet. Because LANs use Ethernet, using Ethernet for the WAN gives organizations an all-Ethernet infrastructure, which simplifies network management.
Availability Many service providers offer MPLS services in some metropolitan areas, but not everywhere. Ethernet exchanges have made Ethernet WAN services available in more locations.

When weighing the pros and cons of MPLS vs. Ethernet, remember to examine business needs, understand the resources available within the network and research the service provider options available in necessary geographic regions.

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This was last published in May 2012

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