The Battle of the Data Transports: Ethernet vs MPLS

The Battle of the Data Titans: Ethernet vs. MPLS

Data transport protocols may not be the most exciting topic in the world, but they are the backbone of our digital world. Two of the biggest players in this game are Ethernet and MPLS. While both are used to carry IP, the differences between them are fundamental and worth exploring.

💻 Table Of Content

Ethernet WAN

Ethernet WAN (Wide Area Network) is a type of wide area network that uses an Ethernet technology to connect geographically dispersed sites. It allows organizations to extend their local area network (LAN) over a wide area, enabling remote sites to connect to the main office network and share resources such as files, applications, and servers.

Ethernet WAN is a flexible and scalable solution that can support a wide range of applications and bandwidth requirements. It can be easily managed and configured using standard Ethernet switches and routers, making it a cost-effective solution for businesses of all sizes.

Ethernet WAN
Fig 1.1- Ethernet over Fiber

Ethernet WAN is often used by enterprises to connect branch offices, data centers, and remote workers. It can also be used by service providers to offer high-speed connectivity services to their customers.

MPLS (Multiprotocol Label Switching)

MPLS stands for Multiprotocol Label Switching. It is a protocol used in communication networks to route data packets from one network node to another along a particular path. Wide area networks (WANs) and internet service provider (ISP) networks frequently employ MPLS.

Each data packet is given a label by MPLS, which contains details about the destination and recommended path the packet should travel through the network. This label is utilized by MPLS-enabled routers to swiftly and effectively guide the packet along the right path.

Fig 1.2- MPLS (Multiprotocol Label Switching)

Ethernet vs MPLS

Here are some of the comparison points when discussing MPLS and Ethernet 

  • Ethernet is defined from Layer 0 to Layer 2 (but may run over MPLS), while MPLS always requires a foreign server layer to transport it (which may be Ethernet).
  • Ethernet frames are inherently self-describing, while MPLS packets do not contain a protocol ID.
  • Every Ethernet frame contains a global non aggregable destination address, but MPLS packets have only locally-meaningful labels.
  • Both Ethernet and MPLS-TP can transport IP and other clients.
  • Ethernet does not define a routing protocol but defines a number of Layer 2 control protocols (L2CPs), while MPLS leverages the entire IP suite of protocols.
  • Both Ethernet and MPLS-TP define fault management and performance management OAM, as well as APS mechanisms. Ethernet does not define a routing protocol (neglecting TRILL and similar recent proposals) but defines a number of Layer 2 control protocols (L2CPs). On the other hand MPLS leverages the entire IP suite of protocols.
  • Metro Ethernet offers low OpEx. MPLS-TP is designed to be inexpensive to maintain.
  • Ethernet and MPLS both define 3-bit priority (DiffServ) marking. S-tagged Ethernet also supports Drop Eligibility marking. Token bucketing, a bandwidth profile, is supported by carrier-grade Ethernet. Timing (1588) and security (MACsec) protocols are defined for Ethernet.
  • While MACsec and its 802.1X extensions offer procedures that can be used to safeguard carrier networks (albeit a hop-by-hop security model may not always be suitable), Ethernet packets include distinctive authenticatable source addresses. MPLS, however, was built for core networks with the presumption that there are no inside threats. Forwarding plane attacks are  source based on lack of authentication/integrity. Soft state protocols are the foundation of control plane assaults.
  • Basic Ethernet is zero-touch by design, but carrier-grade Ethernet may require many configuration parameters but Basic MPLS relies on IP routing protocols, and  MPLS-TP is designed to be able to function without a control plane (although a GMPLS-based control plane has been defined as an option)

But what do all these technical differences mean for us mere mortals?

Well, for starters, Ethernet is like a reliable old car that gets you from point A to point B without any fuss. It's great for local area networks (LANs) and has been around since the 1980s. MPLS, on the other hand, is like a sports car with all the bells and whistles. It's newer and more complex, but it can handle larger networks and more advanced applications.

Imagine you're planning a road trip. If you're just going from your house to the grocery store, you don't need a Lamborghini. But if you're planning a cross-country adventure, you might want something with a little more horsepower.

Another way to think about it is like a game of chess. Ethernet is like the pawn – it can only move forward and has limited capabilities. But it's still an essential piece of the puzzle. MPLS is like the queen – it can move in any direction and has a wide range of powers. But it's also more vulnerable to attack and requires more strategic planning.

In the end, whether you choose Ethernet or MPLS depends on your specific needs and goals. But it's important to understand the differences and advantages of each.

The Future of Data Transport

As technology continues to evolve, so do our data transport options. But Ethernet and MPLS aren't going anywhere anytime soon. In fact, both protocols are constantly being updated and improved to meet the demands of an ever-changing digital landscape.

One exciting development is the emergence of software-defined networking (SDN), which allows for more flexible and efficient network management. Both Ethernet and MPLS can be used in SDN environments, but MPLS has some advantages in terms of scalability and traffic engineering.

Check this out for SDN:
Introduction to SDN Terminology - The Network DNA

Another area of innovation is 5G wireless technology, which promises faster speeds and lower latency. Both Ethernet and MPLS can be used in 5G networks, but again, MPLS has some advantages in terms of quality of service (QoS) and network slicing.

Check this out for 5G for SDWAN
5G Connectivity on Cisco Viptela SDWAN - The Network DNA

So, whether you're a network engineer, a business owner, or just a curious tech enthusiast, keep an eye on the ongoing battle between Ethernet and MPLS. It's a fascinating and essential part of our digital world.


In summary, MPLS and Ethernet WAN are two different technologies used for wide area network (WAN) connectivity.

MPLS is a protocol that uses labels to efficiently route data packets through a network, providing fast and reliable performance with QoS capabilities. MPLS is commonly used in service provider networks, but can also be used in enterprise networks for site-to-site connectivity.

Ethernet WAN, on the other hand, uses Ethernet technology to connect geographically dispersed sites, providing a flexible and scalable solution for organizations of all sizes. Ethernet WAN is commonly used in enterprise networks for site-to-site connectivity.

While both MPLS and Ethernet WAN offer benefits for WAN connectivity, the choice between the two will depend on the specific needs and requirements of the organization. MPLS may be preferred for high-performance and QoS-sensitive applications, while Ethernet WAN may be preferred for its scalability and cost-effectiveness.

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