Describe Wide area network (WAN) | Metro Ethernet, Internet Access, Ethernet Tree Service, MPLS

Describe Wide area network (WAN) | Metro Ethernet, Internet Access, Ethernet Tree Service, MPLS

A wide-area network (WAN) is a collection of local-area networks (LANs) or other networks that communicate with one another. A WAN is essentially a network of networks, with the Internet the world’s largest WAN.

Metro Ethernet

Metro Ethernet (MetroE) includes a variety of WAN services with some common features. Each MetroE service uses Ethernet physical links to connect the customer’s device to the service provider’s device. Second, the service is a Layer 2 service in that the WAN provider forwards Ethernet frames from one customer device to another.

To begin the conversation with a basic view, Metro Ethernet acts much as if the WAN service were created by one Ethernet switch. The figure shows four sites in the same company, each with a router. Each router is connected to the WAN service with an Ethernet link of some kind; those Ethernet links typically use one of the fiber Ethernet standards due to the distances involved. From the customer’s perspective (that is, from the perspective of the enterprise that is the customer of the WAN SP), the WAN service acts like a LAN switch in that it forwards Ethernet frames.

Although the main concept makes a Metro Ethernet service act like a big LAN switch, there are many options, and you should understand the basics of each. Additionally, many customers connect to a Metro Ethernet service with either routers or Layer 3 switches, which brings up some Layer 3 issues with IP addressing and routing protocols.

Metro Ethernet Physical Design and Topology

From an enterprise perspective, to use a Metro Ethernet service, each site needs to connect to the service with (at least) one Ethernet link. There is no need to connect each enterprise router to each other enterprise router directly with a physical link. From the SP perspective, the SP needs to build a network to create the Metro Ethernet service. To keep costs lower the SP puts a device (typically an Ethernet switch) physically near to as many customer sites as possible, in an SP facility called a point of presence (PoP). Those SP switches need to be near enough to many customer locations so that some Ethernet standard supports the distance from the SP’s PoP to each customer site.

Working through the details in the figure, the physical link between the customer and the SP is called an access link or, when using Ethernet specifically, an Ethernet access link. Everything that happens on that link falls within the definition of the user network interface, or UNI. Breaking down the term UNI, the word network refers to the SP’s network, while the SP’s customer (the enterprise) is known as the user of the network. Focusing on the table content below, the SP’s network remains hidden to a great extent. The SP promises to deliver Ethernet frames across the WAN. To do that, the access links connect to an Ethernet switch. As you can imagine, the switch will look at the Ethernet header’s MAC address fields and at 802.1Q trunking headers for VLAN tags, but the details inside the network remain hidden.

100BASE-LX10100 Mbps10 Km
1000BASE-LX1 Gbps5 Km
1000BASE-LX101 Gbps10 Km
1000BASE-ZX1 Gbps100 Km
10GBASE-LR10 Gbps10 Km
10GBASE-ER10 Gbps40 Km
Ethernet WAN Services and Topologies

Beyond adding a physical Ethernet connection from each site into the SP’s Metro Ethernet WAN service, the enterprise must choose between several possible variations of MetroE services. Those variations use different topologies that meet different customer needs. MEF ( defines the standards for Metro Ethernet, including the specifications for different kinds of MetroE services. Table lists three service types described in this chapter and their topologies. The next few pages after the table go into more depth about each.

Service NameShort NameTopology termDescription
Ethernet Line ServiceE-LinePoint-to-pointTwo customer premise equipment (CPE) devices can exchange Ethernet frames, similar in concept to a leased line.
Ethernet LAN ServiceE-LANFull meshThis service acts like a LAN, in that all devices can send frames to all other devices.
Ethernet Tree ServiceE-TreeHub and spoke; partial mesh; point-to-multipointA central site can communicate to a defined set of remote sites, but the remote sites cannot communicate directly.

Ethernet Line Service (Point-to-Point)

The Ethernet Line Service, or E-Line, is the simplest of the Metro Ethernet services. The customer connects two sites with access links. Then the MetroE service allows the two customer devices to send Ethernet frames to each other. As with all MetroE services, the promise made by the service is to deliver Ethernet frames across the service, as if the two customer routers had a rather long crossover cable connected between them.

  • The routers would use physical Ethernet interfaces.
  • The routers would configure IP addresses in the same subnet as each other.
  • Their routing protocols would become neighbors and exchange routes.

The MetroE specifications define the concept of an Ethernet Virtual Connection, or EVC, to define which user (customer) devices can communicate with which. By definition, an E-Line service creates a point-to-point EVC, meaning that the service allows two endpoints to communicate. It may be that an enterprise wants to implement a network exactly as shown in Figure, with two sites and two routers, with MetroE WAN connectivity using an E-Line service. Other variations exist, even other variations using an E-Line.

For example, think of a common enterprise WAN topology with a central site and 100 remote sites. As shown so far, with an E-Line service, the central site router would need 100 physical Ethernet interfaces to connect to those 100 remote sites. That could be expensive. As an alternative, the enterprise could use the design partially shown in Figure (just three remote sites shown). In this case:

  • The central site router uses a single 10-Gbps access link.
  • The central site connects to 100 E-Lines (only three shown).
  • All the E-Lines send and receive frames over the same access link.

Note that the customer could use switches instead of routers to connect to the WAN. Historically, enterprise engineers place routers at the edge of a WAN, in part because that device connected to both the WAN and the LAN, and the LAN and WAN used different types of physical interfaces and different data-link protocols. As a result of how routing works, routers served as the perfect device to sit at the edge between LAN and WAN (called the WAN edge). With MetroE, the LAN and WAN are both Ethernet, so an Ethernet switch becomes an option.

Ethernet LAN Service (Full Mesh)

Imagine an enterprise needs to connect several sites to a WAN, and the goal is to allow every site to send frames directly to every other site. You could do that with E-Lines, but you would need possibly lots of E-Lines. For instance, to connect three sites with E-Lines so that each site could send frames directly to each other, you only need three E-Lines. But with four, five, and six sites, you would need 6, 10, and 15 E-Lines, respectively. Get up to 20 sites for which all could send frames directly to each other, and you would need 190 E-Lines. (The formula is N(N – 1) / 2.)

The people who created MetroE anticipated the need for designs that allow a full mesh—that is, for each pair of nodes in the service to send frames to each other directly. In fact, allowing all devices to send directly to every other device sounds a lot like an Ethernet LAN, so the MetroE service is called an Ethernet LAN service, or E-LAN. One E-LAN service allows all devices connected to that service to send Ethernet frames directly to every other device, just as if the Ethernet WAN service were one big Ethernet switch. Figure shows a representation of a single E-LAN EVC. In this case, the one EVC connects to four customer sites, creating one E-LAN. Routers R1, R2, R3, and R4 can all send frames directly to each other. They would also all be in the same Layer 3 subnet on the WAN.

An E-LAN service connects the sites in a full mesh. The term full mesh refers to a design that, for a set of devices, creates a direct communication path for each pair. In contrast, a partial mesh refers to a design in which only some of the pairs can communicate directly. The Ethernet Tree service (E-Tree), creates a partial mesh design.

Internet Access

Private WAN technology may be used to access an ISP’s network, including the Ethernet WAN and MPLS technologies. In addition to the traditional services shown in the figure, enterprises can also use Internet access technologies more commonly used by consumers, including DSL, cable, 4G/5G, and fiber Ethernet. The chapter includes this information about Internet access technologies to provide useful background information before getting into Internet VPN topics.

Digital Subscriber Line

In the consumer Internet access space, one big speed breakthrough happened with the introduction of the digital subscriber line (DSL). It represented a big technological breakthrough in terms of raw speed in comparison to some older technologies, such as analog modems. These faster speeds available through DSL also changed how people could use the Internet because many of today’s common applications would be unusable with the earlier Internet access technologies (analog modems and Integrated Services Digital Network, or ISDN). Telephone companies (telcos) greatly influenced the creation of DSL. As a technology, DSL gave telcos a way to offer much faster Internet access speeds. As a business opportunity, DSL gave telcos a way to offer a valuable high-speed Internet service to many of their existing telephone customers, over the same physical phone line already installed, which created a great way for telcos to make money.

Figure shows some of the details of how DSL works on a home phone line. The phone can do what it has always done: plug into a phone jack and send analog signals. For the data, a DSL modem connects to a spare phone outlet. The DSL modem sends and receives the data, as digital signals, at higher frequencies, over the same local loop, even at the same time as a telephone call. (Note that the physical installation often uses frequency filters that are not shown in the figure or discussed here.) Because DSL sends analog (voice) and digital (data) signals on the same line, the telco has to somehow split those signals on the telco side of the connection. To do so, the local loop must be connected to a DSL access multiplexer (DSLAM) located in the nearby telco central office (CO). The DSLAM splits out the digital data over to the router on the lower right in Figure, which completes the connection to the Internet. The DSLAM also splits out the analog voice signals over to the voice switch on the upper right.

Cable Internet

DSL uses the local link (telephone line) from the local telco. Cable Internet instead uses the cabling from what has become the primary competitor to the telco in most markets: the cable company. Cable Internet creates an Internet access service that, when viewed generally rather than specifically, has many similarities to DSL. Like DSL, cable Internet takes full advantage of existing cabling, using the existing cable TV (CATV) cable to send data. Like DSL, cable Internet uses asymmetric speeds, sending data faster downstream than upstream, which works well for most consumer locations. And cable Internet still allows the normal service on the cable (cable TV), at the same time as the Internet access service is working.

Cable Internet also uses the same general idea for in-home cabling as DSL, just using CATV cabling instead of telephone cabling. The left side of Figure shows a TV connected to the CATV cabling, just as it would normally connect. At another cable outlet, a cable modem connects to the same cable. The Internet service flows over one frequency, like yet another TV channel, just reserved for Internet service.

Similar to DSL, on the CATV company side of the connection (on the right side of the figure), the CATV company must split out the data and video traffic. Data flows to the lower right, through a router, to the Internet. The video comes in from video dishes for distribution out to the TVs in people’s homes.

Wireless WAN (3G, 4G, LTE, 5G):

All of you have a mobile phone that has Internet access. That is, you can check your email, surf the Web, download apps, and watch videos. Many of us today rely on our mobile phones, and the Internet access built in to those phones, for most of our tweets and the like. This section touches on the big concepts behind the Internet access technology connecting those mobile phones. Mobile phones use radio waves to communicate through a nearby mobile phone tower. The phone has a small radio antenna, and the provider has a much larger antenna sitting at the top of a tower somewhere within miles of you and your phone. Phones, tablet computers, laptops, and even routers (with the correct interface cards) can communicate through to the Internet using this technology.

The mobile phone radio towers also have cabling and equipment, including routers. The mobile provider builds its own IP network, much like an ISP builds out an IP network. The customer IP packets pass through the IP router at the tower into the mobile provider’s IP network and then out to the Internet. The market for mobile phones and wireless Internet access for other devices is both large and competitive. As a result, the mobile providers spend a lot of money advertising their services, with lots of names for one service or the other. Frankly, it can be difficult to tell what all the marketing jargon means, but a few terms tend to be used throughout the industry:

Wireless Internet: This general term refers to Internet services from a mobile phone or from any device that uses the same technology.
3G/4G Wireless: Short for third generation and fourth generation, these terms refer to the major changes over time to the mobile phone companies’ wireless networks.
LTE: Long-Term Evolution is a newer and faster technology considered to be part of fourth generation (4G) technology.
5G Wireless: This is the fifth major generation of wireless phone technology

Enterprises can use this same wireless technology to connect to the Internet. For instance, a network engineer can install a 4G wireless card in a router. ISPs team with wireless operators to create contracts for wireless and Internet service.

Fiber (Ethernet) Internet Access:

The consumer-focused Internet access technologies discussed in this section use a couple of different physical media. DSL uses the copper wiring installed between the telco CO and the home. Cable uses the copper CATV cabling installed from the cable company to the home. And, of course, wireless WAN technologies do not use cables for Internet access. The cabling used by DSL and cable Internet uses copper wires, but, comparing different types of physical media, fiber-optic cabling generally supports faster speeds for longer distances. That is, just comparing physical layer technologies across the breadth of networking, fiber-optic cabling supports longer links, and those links often run at equivalent or faster speeds.

Some ISPs now offer Internet access that goes by the name fiber Internet, or simply fiber. To make that work, some local company that owns the rights to install cabling underground in a local area (often a telephone company) installs new fiber-optic cabling. Once the cable plant is in place (a process that often takes years as well as a large budget), the fiber ISP then connects customers to the Internet using the fiber-optic cabling. Often, the fiber uses Ethernet protocols over the fiber. The end result: high-speed Internet to the home, often using Ethernet technology.

Ethernet Tree Service (Hub and Spoke)

The Ethernet Tree service (E-Tree) creates a WAN topology in which the central site device can send Ethernet frames directly to each remote (leaf) site, but the remote (leaf) sites can send only to the central site. Figure shows the topology, again with a single EVC. In this case, router R1 is the root site, and can send to all three remote sites. Routers R2, R3, and R4 can send only to R1.

With an E-Tree, the central site serves as the root of a tree and each remote site as one of the leaves. The topology goes by many names: partial mesh, hub and spoke, and point-to-multipoint. Regardless of the term you use, an E-Tree service creates a service that works well for designs with a central site plus many remote sites.

Multiprotocol Label Switching (MPLS)

MPLS creates a WAN service that routes IP packets between customer sites. The enterprise deploys routers and switches as usual. The SP then creates its own IP network, spanning a large geographic area. The customer can then connect to the MPLS network, with a link from each site, with the SP routing IP packets from one customer site to the other. For instance, in Figure, the middle four routers could represent the SP’s MPLS network, with the numbered routers on the edges being routers owned by one company.

However, an SP cannot just build a large IP network and connect all its customers to that same IP network because of some issues that arise to support multiple customers at the same time. For instance, many customers will use the same private IP network (for instance, network, so the SP’s IP network would learn large numbers of routes to overlapping subnets. To overcome this and other issues, the SP builds its IP network to also use Multiprotocol Label Switching (MPLS), in particular MPLS VPNs. MPLS VPNs allow the SP to build one large MPLS network, which also creates a private IP-based WAN for each of its customers. With MPLS VPNs, the SP can separate the routes learned from one customer from the routes learned for the next customer; consequently, the SP can support each customer while preventing packets from leaking from one customer to the next.

To give you a little insight as to why MPLS is not just an IP network with routers, internally, the devices in an MPLS network use label switching—hence, the name MPLS. The routers on the edge of the MPLS network add and remove an MPLS header to packets as they enter and exit the MPLS network. The devices inside the MPLS network then use the label field inside that MPLS header when forwarding data across the MPLS network. The choices of the labels to use, along with other related logic, allow the MPLS VPN to create separate VPNs to keep different customers’ traffic separate.

NOTE While MPLS VPNs provide a Layer 3 service to customers, MPLS itself is sometimes called a Layer 2.5 protocol because it adds the MPLS header between the data-link header (Layer 2) and the IP header (Layer 3).
However, because MPLS VPNs create a Layer 3 service, the customer must be more aware of what the SP does than with other WAN servers, so you need to know a few facts about how an MPLS network approaches some Layer 3 functions. In particular, the SP’s MPLS VPN :

  • Will use a routing protocol to build routing protocol neighbor relationships with customer routers
  • Will learn customer subnets/routes with those routing protocols
  • Will advertise a customer’s routes with a routing protocol so that all routers that customer connects to the MPLS VPN can learn all routes as advertised through the MPLS VPN network
  • Will make decisions about MPLS VPN forwarding, including what MPLS labels to add and remove, based on the customer’s IP address space and customer IP routes

As an aside, MPLS VPNs create a private network by keeping customer data separate, but not by encrypting the data. Some VPN services encrypt the data, expecting that attackers might be able to receive copies of the packets. With MPLS, even though the packets for two customers may pass through the same devices and links inside the MPLS network, MPLS logic can keep the packets separate for each customer.

MPLS VPN Physical Design and Topology

MPLS provides a Layer 3 service in that it promises to forward Layer 3 packets (IPv4 and IPv6). To support that service, MPLS SPs typically use routers at the edge of the MPLS networks because routers provide the function of forwarding Layer 3 packets. As usual, each WAN technology has its own set of terms and acronyms, so Figure shows two important MPLS terms in context: customer edge (CE) and provider edge (PE). Because MPLS requires so much discussion about the devices on the edge of the customer and SP network, MPLS uses specific terms for each. The customer edge device is typically a router, and it sits at a customer site—that is, at a site in the company that is buying the MPLS service. The provider edge devices sit at the edge of the SP’s network, on the other end of the access link.

Next, to appreciate what MPLS does, think back to how routers use their different kinds of physical interfaces and different kinds of data-link protocols. When routing a packet, routers discard an incoming data-link frame’s data-link header and trailer and then build a new data-link header/trailer. That action the incoming packet to arrive inside a frame of one data-link protocol and leave out an interface with another data-link protocol.

With MPLS, the fact that the devices are routers, discarding and adding new data-link headers, means that MPLS networks support a variety of access links. The fact that MPLS acts as a Layer 3 service, discarding incoming data-link headers, means that any data-link protocol could in theory be used on MPLS access links. In reality, MPLS does support many types of access links, as below figure

The variety of access links available for MPLS networks makes MPLS a great option for building large enterprise networks. For sites that are near MetroE services, especially for sites that need at least 10 Mbps of bandwidth, using MetroE as an access link makes great sense. Then, for sites that are more remote, the carrier may not offer MetroE services to that area, but many carriers can install a serial link to remote sites. Or, common Internet access technologies, like cable and wireless 4G/5G services, can also be used to access an MPLS network.

MPLS and Quality of Service

MPLS stands apart from other WAN services as the first WAN service for which the SP provided effective Quality of Service (QoS) features. You should be able to get a general idea of an MPLS QoS benefit with the following basic example.

IP networks can and often do forward voice traffic in IP packets, called Voice over IP (VoIP). If a WAN service does not provide QoS, that means that the WAN service does not treat one packet any differently than any other packet. With QoS, the SP’s network can treat packets differently, giving some packets (like VoIP) better treatment. For a voice call to sound good, each voice packet must have low loss (that is, few packets are discarded); low one-way delay through the network; and low variation in delay (called jitter). Without QoS, a voice call over an IP network will not sound good.
With a QoS-capable WAN, the customer can mark VoIP packets so that the MPLS network can recognize VoIP packets and treat them better, resulting in better voice call quality. But to make it work correctly, the customer and MPLS provider need to cooperate.

For instance, for VoIP packets traveling left to right in figure, router CE1 could be configured with QoS marking tools. Marking tools could recognize VoIP packets and place a specific value in the IP header of VoIP packets (a value called DSCP EF, per the figure). The MPLS WAN provider would then configure its QoS tools to react for packets that have that marking, typically sending that packet as soon as possible. The result: low delay, low jitter, low loss, and a better call quality.

Summarizing the ideas so far, MPLS supports a variety of access links. An enterprise would select the type and speed of access link for each site based on the capacity (bandwidth) required for each site. Beyond that basic connectivity, the enterprise will want to work with the SP to define other features of the service. The customer and SP will need to work through the details of some Layer 3 design choices. The customer will also likely want to ask for QoS services from the MPLS provider and define those details.

Layer 3 with MPLS VPN

Because MetroE provides a Layer 2 service, the SP has no need to understand anything about the customer’s Layer 3 design. The SP knows nothing about the customer’s IP addressing plan and has no need to participate with routing protocols. MPLS VPNs take the complete opposite approach. As a Layer 3 service, MPLS must be aware of the customer IP addressing. The SP will even use routing protocols and advertise those customer routes across the WAN.

First, keep the primary goals in mind. The customer pays good money for a WAN service to deliver data between sites, with certain levels of availability and quality (for instance, low delay, jitter, and loss for VoIP). But to support that base function of allowing packet delivery from each WAN site to the other, the CE routers need to exchange routes with the PE routers in the MPLS network. Additionally, all the CE routers need to learn routes from the other CE routers—a process that relies on the PE routers.

First, the CE routers and the PE router on the ends of the same access link need to exchange routes. The figure shows the CE-PE routing protocol neighbor relationships (as lines with circles on the ends). In this case, the customer chose to use OSPF. However, MPLS allows for many familiar routing protocols on the edge of the MPLS network: RIPv2, EIGRP, OSPF, and even eBGP.

Additionally, all the CE routers need to learn routes from the other CE routers. However, a CE router does not form routing protocol neighbor relationships directly with the other CE routers. Summarizing what does and does not happen:

  • A CE router does become neighbors with the PE router on the other end of the access link.
  • A CE router does not become neighbors with other CE routers.
  • The MPLS network does advertise the customer’s routes between the various PE routers so that the CE routers can learn all customer routes through their PE-CE routing protocol neighbor relationship.

To advertise the customer routes between the PE routers, the PE routers use another routing protocol along with a process called route redistribution. Route redistribution happens inside one router, taking routes from one routing protocol process and injecting them into another. MPLS does route redistribution in the PE routers between the routing protocol used by the customer and a variation of BGP called Multiprotocol BGP (MPBGP). (Redistribution is needed when the PE-CE routing protocol is not BGP).

Just as a quick aside about MPBGP, MPLS VPNs use MPBGP (as opposed to other routing protocols) because MPBGP can advertise routes from multiple customers while keeping the routes logically separated. Router PE1 might sit in one PoP but connect to dozens of different customers. Likewise, router PE3 might connect to many of those same customers. MPBGP can advertise routes for all those customers and mark which routes are from which customers so that only the correct routes are advertised to each CE router for different customers.

At the end of the process, for all single enterprises, all the routers can learn routes to all the subnets reachable over the MPLS VPN WAN. WAN routes on the CE routers refer to the neighboring PE router as the next-hop router. Each CE router becomes a routing protocol neighbor with the SP’s PE router on the other end of the access link. Plus, MPLS provides the flexibility to use whatever type of physical access link makes sense for the location at each site, while still connecting to the same MPLS network.

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