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Planning MPLS network procurement not for faint of heart

In order to facilitate an MPLS link for your VPN, you need to follow four key steps -- including a provider- agnostic design and review.

Editor's note: Writer Robert Sturt has created a TechTarget step-by-step IT managers field guide to MPLS and VPLS...


A multiprotocol label switching virtual private network (VPN) procurement project typically takes anywhere from two to six months to complete due to the thorough analysis required in order to align your specific requirements with the service provider marketplace. Without a comprehensive and repeatable process, you may be at risk of overlooking requirements or facing delays, all of which can result in downtime and poor application performance.

To avoid these types of problems, here are four key areas to consider when procuring a multiprotocol label switching (MPLS) connection for your VPN.

1. Review your existing solution

To achieve excellence in design, it is essential to gain a firm understanding and breakdown of the existing solution. The past shows us where pain points and issues have occurred and how a fresh approach will minimize or even totally alleviate such issues.

Asking the right questions, analyzing responses and cutting through the marketing hype … is, fundamentally, a real challenge.

Understanding the technical aspects of your wide area network (WAN) requires a methodology to ensure each aspect is documented and then related to the potential business impact any weaknesses may cause. A top-down approach to design and documentation ensures data remains relevant regardless of provider or manufacturer.

These areas should include:

  • Data flow and the types and the processes that access or change the data.
  • Topology, which includes understanding the location, applications and user requirements, together with site analysis to understand single points of failure.
  • Router configurations, including the customer edge (your site's router) and the provider's edge (your provider's router). Details to acquire include IP routing, bandwidths and Quality of Service (QoS) match statements.
  • Routing and IP addressing. Understand the flow of data across the WAN and the various protocols and addressing techniques in place today.
  • Statistics. Depending upon availability, make sure you understand performance, usage, latency and jitter per application.
  • Security. Private WAN technologies are inherently secure. But some sectors, such as financial organizations or government agencies, may require additional security. Organizations with extranet clients and partner access will also need a robust security layer to separate traffic.
  • Remote access. Document your access, along with associated security.

2. Understand MPLS VPN service provider products

It's critical that key members of your staff understand how service providers work and can explain their products and services to others in your business. This doesn't mean you have to be an expert, but gaining a sufficient level of knowledge is a real asset when it comes to MPLS procurement. This capability will be particularly useful when it comes to areas such as QoS, where a knowledgeable staff member will know how to relate QoS standards to mission-critical and delay-sensitive applications such as voice and video. The result: better performance, improved productivity and enriched customer experience.

Areas to consider:

  • MPLS and the differences between how Layer 3 VPNs offer a standardized routing capability versus the ability to control your own routing either with a Layer 2 VPN or a hybrid approach that combines both Layer 2 and Layer 3.
  • QoS and factors to consider when running mission-critical and delay-sensitive applications.
  • SIP trunking and WAN design. Session Initiation Protocol (SIP) is used within IP telephony environments and is becoming an industry standard.
  • Diversity and resiliency: how solutions are designed to avoid any single point of failure from building entry through to the provider's core network.

3. The provider-agnostic design

Agnostic design involves the creation of an overall architecture -- a design that will take you from where you are today and into the future. Successful companies create an architecture that aligns technology and business processes with their organizations' business strategies.

Modern WANs are often extremely complex even as they remain critical to business success. The growth of business processes and transactions continue to increase requirements for bandwidth, reliability and functionality. Designing a robust, reliable and scalable network is a skill that requires more than just technical ability. The effective service provider is one that provides WAN infrastructure that aligns with your business and technology requirements. To that end, don't build an MPLS VPN that's based on a particular provider's solution. Instead, the goal is to create a communications infrastructure that reflects and supports your business's goals. Ignoring the agnostic design process means an outcome that favors the provider, and not your organization.

4. The RFP process

Asking the right questions, analyzing responses and cutting through the marketing hype to determine what is actually valid and deliverable is, fundamentally, a real challenge.

That's why a highly effective request for proposal (RFP) is essential. A good RFP process lets you ask difficult questions that should produce interesting and informative responses. RFPs must reflect your business requirements. At the same time, be aware of the multitude of requirements -- not merely those within different groups of your organization but those of the service provider. Let's face it: Changing vendors through an RFP process can be challenging and therefore you need to be clear in understanding how your demands shaped the responses received.

Many companies believe the RFP process is only suitable for large enterprises. They certainly have a point, as the RFP process is a tried and trusted method to obtain enough detail about potential partners in situations with complex requirements. It's also true that tender documents have to be balanced against your requirements.

For your business, this means considering the size and complexity of your RFP versus the scale of your requirements. If your requirements are small in scale, this doesn't mean the RFP is a less effective tool. But it may affect the level of response you receive from potential bidders. It's highly unlikely, for example, that a provider will respond to a 50-page RFP document for a three-site network.

That's understandable, but it's also true that the tender document doesn't have to be 200 pages to be successful. Content and questions must be focused: There should be a valid reason why a question is asked. Service providers will consider the cost/benefit ratio of responding to your tender document or RFP and assess how successful they may be before replying. It's critical, therefore, that RFP documents are as balanced as they can be.

Next Steps

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This was last published in April 2014

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