Let's say you're a mid-sized business with a number of locations. Do you juggle multiple networks and multiple phone numbers?  Are you afraid you'll lose quality of service if you make a change?

Maybe multiprotocol label switching (MPLS) is for you.

Different from frame relay or ATM systems, MPLS is an Internet protocol-based service over a virtual private network (VPN) that has the ability to tag and prioritize whether voice, video, or Internet traffic is moving over the system, and assign it the correct class of service. The result? Phone calls, even voice over Internet protocol (VoIP), have optimal sound, because they are correctly assigned the best class of service. Video service is less jumpy. Internet service, phones, and video can run across the system at the same time without a total meltdown.

'Voice and video traffic needs a class of service that is low jitter and low latency,' notes Lisa Pierce, a vice president with Cambridge, Mass.-based Forrester Research. 'MPLS can provide this.'

Disaster recovery an advantage

MPLS also offers built-in advantages with regard to disaster recovery. 'You can store critical business data at different locations around the country, and if something happens at one location, you can go over to the other database,' says Sal Cinquegrani, spokesman for Vancouver, Wash.-based New Edge Networks, a full-service WAN provider and Earthlink subsidiary.

There are also cost advantages. MPLS can be a good choice for a growing business with multiple locations that isn't ready to pay higher prices for a T1 line. 'In this slumping economy, businesses might not want to invest in T1' which costs roughly $500 a month, he says. New Edge offers MPLS over a DSL connection for about $240 a month, he says.

However, Dan Hoffman, CEO of New York, N.Y.-based M5 Networks, says the process can be complex. 'Mid-sized companies should really hire a consultant for this,' he says. But he admits that there can be real savings involved. 'The real dollar value in MPLS is saving five receptionist salaries and avoiding having five phone systems.' M5 is a leading VoIP and hosted networks provider that also offers MPLS services.

MPLS not for everyone

If you have only a couple locations, however, MPLS is probably more technology and expense than you need, cautions Forrester's Pierce. 'For an [small or mid-sized business] with two or three locations, it's probably too expensive…. It's probably better just to use good old long distance, along with a VPN without the class of service,' she says. An exception, she noted, would be a smaller company that relies heavily on voice and video conferencing or data applications such as PeopleSoft that demand better latency.

For most smaller businesses, hosted network services continue to represent the best value, adds Pierce. 'They can be managed by a third party, there's no commitment to equipment, and they can provide the applications a business needs without overkill,' she says, for about $10-$80/month per unit price.

So, is MPLS for your business? If you're growing, and need to make long-distance links, it just may be.