MPLS vs. VPN – What are the differences?

The term MPLS has become a bit of a buzzword lately, particularly within circles that tend to discuss online privacy. MPLS is frequently compared to VPNs because their mission statements are essentially the same: to route IP traffic securely.

However, just because they share the same goal doesn’t mean they approach it the same way. So, what are the differences between a VPN and MPLS? Do they both provide the same level of security? Do they both provide encryption? Should you choose one over the other?

In this post, we’ll answer the above questions and more. We’ll examine VPNs and MPLS to provide an overview of how they work, highlight their similarities and differences, and provide the most common use cases for each.

Let’s start.

What is a VPN?

VPN stands for Virtual Private Network, and a VPN does just that: it creates an encrypted tunnel over the internet between your device and the VPN server. It then routes your device’s traffic through the tunnel by assigning it a virtual IP address and encrypting your traffic along the way.

It’s the VPN server that ultimately sends your traffic to its ultimate destination. Regarding the sites you access, your traffic appears to be coming from the VPN server, effectively masking your IP address. Because all your traffic is encrypted, your ISP, or any third party, for that matter, cannot snoop on your internet activities – they would only see gibberish.

Benefits of a VPN

There are many benefits of using a VPN. Here are some of the main ones:

  • Cost: VPN clients use your existing infrastructure/connection to provide its security and privacy, making it cost-effective compared to MPLS
  • Compatibility: VPNs can work with practically any device (computers, tablets, smartphones, etc.). Even devices that don’t have explicit VPN functionality or the ability to install apps can be made to use a VPN with many off-the-shelf routers. All major operating systems also support VPNs (though not all VPN protocols, usually only the IPsec protocol).
  • Ease-of-use: VPN clients are typically extremely easy to use. It usually only involves downloading an app and connecting to a VPN server. It’s quick and easy, and even VPN beginners can set up and use one without referring to any documentation.
  • Scalability: VPNs can support a significant number of users, and adding new users is simple. So, in a business VPN scenario, as an organization grows, it can add as many VPN users as it requires. VPNs scale easily without causing headaches.
  • Security: VPNs encrypt your traffic by default (when deployed for privacy and security). MPLS does not. MPLS can provide encryption if configured to do so, but it does not “out-of-the-box.” MPLS has other ways to secure traffic without encryption (more on that later).

Drawbacks of a VPN

It’s not all positive. Here are some of the drawbacks of using a VPN:

  • Speed: While some VPNs can be extremely fast, they’re not optimized for speed. In fact, using a VPN will invariably slow your connection down to some degree. That’s because the encryption and decryption create overhead and latency, which translate to a slower connection. Also, the further away the VPN server is from your actual physical location, the more latency (and, hence, slowdown) you’ll get.
  • Privacy: Although most commercial VPN providers claim to provide privacy to their users, many do not. When you use a VPN, the VPN server can “see” everything you do. And that’s by necessity: you’re transiting through the VPN server, and it needs to know where to forward your packets. A reputable VPN provider can have a no-logging policy and take technical measures not to log its users’ traffic. But the point is that any VPN has the technical ability to snoop on your activities. So, the privacy component they provide is based on trust.

Now, let’s look at MPLS.

What is MPLS?

MPLS stands for Multi-Protocol Label Switching. Like a VPN, MPLS’s ostensible goal is to route traffic securely. But they each go about this in their own way. MPLS uses data labels rather than IP addresses to identify packets, their origin and destination, and determine the route they should take. This approach removes the need for IP address lookups, reducing overhead and improving efficiency.

In MPLS, when a packet exits a network, it’s given a label that routers use to determine which predefined route to send it to its destination. Again, this is done without resorting to IP address lookups. This routing scheme keeps things simple and fast.

Benefits of MPLS

  • Reliability: MPLS uses dedicated connections rather than the public internet, making it far more resilient to things like jitter and latency. MPLS’s reliability is also bolstered by the fact that it uses private infrastructure. MPLS uses dedicated links so organizations can use their entire bandwidth.
  • Performance: Because MPLS doesn’t require encryption/decryption, it operates with less overhead, enhancing performance and reducing latency.
  • Scalability: Like VPNs, MPLS can support a large number of users. And although scaling MPLS can be more complex (and expensive) than scaling VPNs, it is still relatively easy.
  • Security: Yes, security will be one of MPLS’s benefits because it can support encryption and practically any encryption protocol. While many organizations use MPLS without encryption, doing so makes MPLS one of the most robust routing schemes in regard to security.

Drawbacks of MPLS

  • Cost: The cost of MPLS can be prohibitive. MPLS relies on dedicated connections and reserved bandwidth, which is expensive. Most VPNs use shared bandwidth, keeping their cost significantly lower.
  • Deployment: Properly implementing and deploying MPLS can also be time-consuming. This is particularly true when organizations need to link offices in locations very far from each other. MPLS is point-to-point (linking two locations—or points – together), so there’s no centralized server enabling remote configuration of the MPLS nodes. Everything needs to be configured on-site, which takes more time and can add complexity.
  • Rigid requirements: MPLS typically requires specific and dedicated hardware to work correctly, adding cost and complexity to its use.
  • Not fit for the cloud: As previously mentioned, MPLS relies on point-to-point connectivity, making it less than ideal for the cloud. With MPLS, you won’t be able to access your SaaS or cloud application directly. While a small handful of cloud services provide this service, their prices are pretty high.

Similarities between VPN and MPLS

I probably wouldn’t be writing a “VPN vs. MPLS” article if they didn’t share similarities. Their main similarity is their primary use case: transmitting your data securely and protecting you (or your organization) from online attacks.

VPN and MPLS both enable users to access local and remote resources safely. They make it harder for bad actors to intercept and funnel your data. They also both mitigate external threats to internal networks.

Can MPLS and VPN be combined?

Yes, VPN and Multi-protocol label switching can work in tandem. They are not mutually exclusive. Using one doesn’t preclude one from also using the other. They can be combined in a “best of both worlds” approach. In this type of combined implementation, the VPN is layered over the MPLS infrastructure, and the VPN would operate inside the MPLS.

An MPLS-VPN system combines the benefits of both systems in one package, but this approach entails high implementation and maintenance costs. The added overhead inherent to routing and encrypting/decrypting data can also impact network speeds, so taking the hybrid route won’t necessarily be the best option.

All that being said, you should only consider going for a hybrid MPLS/VPN solution if:

  • Budget constraints are not an issue.
  • Your applications have stringent quality of service (QoS) requirements.
  • Your primary networking needs are more focused on local connectivity than on (potentially faraway) remote connections.
  • Your complex network topology could benefit from MPLS features like multi-site connectivity and traffic engineering.
  • Tying into the above point, your organization benefits from the support provided by MPLS service providers.

MPLS vs. VPN: Which one is more secure?

MPLS and VPNs have the same prime objective: securing your traffic. But does one do a better job than the other?

MPLS is, in itself, a private network. It uses its own infrastructure and routing protocols. Traffic flows through it, based on its labeling system, and only exchanges data with the open internet at its edges. Because MPLS uses labels rather than IP addresses to route traffic, it reduces the number of IP lookups, making MPLS somewhat less vulnerable to certain types of attacks. But this is based on the presumption that the MPLS infrastructure was configured correctly. If not, your data could still be at risk, particularly at the network’s edges (where routers will perform IP address lookups).

We should also consider that MPLS does not encrypt traffic by default. So if a bad actor manages to get into your private network, it’ll be a “plain-text treasure trove.” Some MPLS providers offer encryption, but it’s not the default (and is likely to drive up the already significant costs of MPLS). So that’s another consideration to keep in mind.

On the other hand, VPNs provide several layers of security and privacy to safeguard your data (encryption, Perfect Forward Secrecy, no-logging policy/technical measures, IP spoofing, kill switches, for example). All of these make your private information much harder to get to.

A reputable VPN provider will commit to not logging customer data and put technical measures in place to prevent their infrastructure from logging that information. This will still rely on trust because, as a customer, you won’t have a meaningful way to verify this. That’s why going with a reputable provider is critical. You need to trust them. A VPN can usually keep most prying eyes away from your data, but your provider is in a position to get your data if they want/need to, so bear that in mind.

A kill switch is another security feature that helps make VPNs more robust. A kill switch is just that: it blocks your traffic if the VPN should disconnect for whatever reason (except an explicit disconnection by the user). So, with a kill switch, your information remains safe from unexpected disconnects – your data won’t be flowing in the clear.

So, while this isn’t a “one is safe, the other isn’t” type of deal, I’d say that, in general, VPNs provide a broader measure of privacy and security compared to MPLS. MPLS networks are still private, but because they don’t typically provide encryption by default (or kill switches and other VPN safety features), your information could be at risk if the MPLS falls victim to a data breach.

MPLS vs. VPN wrap up

So that was the lowdown on MPLS and VPNs. We explained what each one is and what each one does with an overview of each system’s pros and cons. We also looked at their similarities and differences. But one final thing to remember (that may have been obvious from the start) is that while VPNs can cater to individual users and businesses (many reputable VPN providers now have business VPN flankers), MPLS is geared towards businesses only. Their cost, complexity, and lack of default encryption don’t make them suitable for individual users looking for extra privacy and security when going online.

For businesses, it’s a different story. Depending on their use cases, MPLS or an MPLS/VPN hybrid may be the best option.

Stay safe.