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Boeing beefs up its extranet with MPLS

The jet manufacturer says it's moving away from frame relay and ATM to MPLS to increase service to extranet partners, cut costs and increase internal productivity.

Multiprotocol Label Switching (MPLS) is allowing the Boeing Co. to really take off. Douglas Hill, associate technical fellow with Boeing, said MPLS is helping the company meet increasing network demands.

At the Burton Group Catalyst Conference, Hill told attendees that the Chicago-based jet manufacturer's IT budget had tightened and its workforce decreased due to attrition. But its network, which carries approximately 23,000 terabytes worth of data per month and includes a complex extranet infrastructure, continues to grow.

Previously, Boeing used an asynchronous transfer mode (ATM) and frame relay based backbone with a hub-and-spoke architecture. The aerospace giant's network consisted of hundreds of LANs, three regional data centers, and an extranet to provide access to more than 146,000 partners and suppliers, including NASA. Ensuring the security of these external links is critical, but can be an expensive endeavor.

Hill said the company began exploring opportunities with MPLS, a technology that uses packet labeling for improving network efficiency and distributing traffic loads more evenly, more than two years ago while searching for a more cost-effective option to its now eight-year-old frame relay and ATM contract that's expiring at the end of 2005.

Ultimately, Boeing decided it would migrate its corporate backbone from frame relay and ATM to MPLS.

Hill said the transition, set for completion in November, will not only maintain the network's current services, features and stability, it will also provide lower costs, increased capacity, simplified operation of the backbone and improved routing processes. The mesh-based design inherent in MPLS facilitates the many extranet connections Boeing needs.

According to Hill, "dramatically reduced costs" will be the result of eliminating over-capacity and redundancy at hubs.

"It's a big chunk of change," Hill added.

Because its carrier now bears the burden of maintaining backbone links, Boeing will enjoy easier maintenance because of the simplified network design, Hill said. But since the management is outsourced, Hill said it integrated Cisco's IP SLA into the existing tools and applications to generate performance reports.

Daniel Golding, a senior analyst with Midvale, Utah-based Burton Group, said Boeing's single-carrier approach is not necessarily a best practice. He said companies without staffing limitations, such as Minneapolis-based UnitedHealth Group, have found in-house management a better option.

IPsec over the Internet, Golding added, is now emerging as the main competitor to MPLS.

Attendee Bob Hart, manager of network services with Kent, Ohio-based Kent State University, said it was good to see a large company converting to MPLS, as that hasn't been the case in the past.

Hart said MPLS isn't a good fit for the university's centralized topology, but it does make sense for Boeing's 160,000 users dispersed across 85 locations.

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