What is MPLS?

MPLS vs VPN: What Are the Key Differences?

MPLS (Multiprotocol label switching) and VPNs (virtual private networks) are two technologies commonly used to create a corporate-wide area network (WAN). Both provide organizations with control over how their traffic is routed and greater privacy than the public Internet.

However, MPLS and VPNs operate in different ways and are designed to provide different benefits to an organization. Here are some of the key ways in which MPLS and VPNs differ.


MPLS networks offer the ability to create either point-to-point or multipoint connections. An organization may have traffic that uses different MPLS labels and follows different routes through the MPLS network. A VPN solely provides point-to-point connectivity. If an organization wants to link multiple different locations, they need a different VPN tunnel for each.


MPLS and VPNs both define how traffic is routed through a network. However, they do so in different ways. An MPLS network is created by an Internet Service Provider (ISP) or similar service provider. With the provider’s network, traffic is assigned a label and a route based on its intended destination. This eliminates the need for routers to inspect IP addresses to perform routing and eliminates route inefficiencies.

A VPN is an encrypted tunnel between two points, such as a VPN endpoint on the corporate network and a remote site. A VPN connection may be managed by a service provider, or an organization can set up its own VPN by deploying appliances that performs the traffic encryption and decryption.

Related content: Learn more about MPLS routing

OSI Layer

The Open Systems Interconnection (OSI) model describes the various layers and functions within a networking stack. An MPLS network operates at OSI layers 2 and 3 or the Data Link and Network layers. In contrast, VPNs can operate at various layers of the OSI model, but most commonly use the IPsec protocol which operates at OSI layer 3.


One of the primary reasons that organizations invest in MPLS circuits is to improve network performance. MPLS’ use of short labels for routing enables it to transmit traffic more quickly than the public Internet. VPNs, on the other hand, run on top of another network, such as the public Internet. VPN traffic typically uses traditional routing based on IP addresses. As a result, VPNs may provide inferior performance to the public Internet and to MPLS networks.


MPLS networks are built using dedicated architecture and routes within an ISP’s network. MPLS bandwidth is limited, and MPLS is commonly significantly more expensive than broadband Internet. A VPN operates by encapsulating traffic in encryption that is unwrapped at the VPN endpoint. Commercial VPNs are a commodity product, and organizations can inexpensively set up a VPN to secure traffic to and from the corporate network.


Traffic flowing over an MPLS network uses routes differently than traditional Internet traffic, which provides some additional security. However, MPLS does not use encryption or provide any security inspection capabilities by default. VPNs encrypt traffic flowing between the endpoints of the VPN connection, providing superior security to an MPLS network. However, they also do not offer network traffic inspection or security functionality to ensure that the traffic that they carry is legitimate and free of malicious content.

There’s Also What Is Known as An “MPLS-VPN”

An MPLS VPN implements a VPN within an MPLS network. Often, MPLS VPNs are offered as a service by ISPs or other service providers that offer MPLS services. MPLS VPNs can be implemented in a few different ways, including:

  • Point-to-point
  • Layer 2 virtual private LAN service (VPLS)
  • Layer 3 virtual private routed network (VPRN)

MPLS and VPN Alternatives

MPLS and VPNs provide organizations with greater privacy than routing traffic over the public Internet. However, this comes at a cost. MPLS circuits are expensive, bandwidth-limited, and difficult to expand to new locations. VPNs use inefficient network routing that can dramatically degrade the performance of corporate networks.

Both MPLS and VPNs also fall short in terms of security. While they provide some protection against eavesdropping, they do nothing to ensure that the traffic that they carry is not malicious. In some cases, an organization may be forced to choose between network performance and security.

Software-Defined Wide Area Networking (SD-WAN) — deployed as part of a Secure Access Service Edge (SASE) solution — provides optimized network routing without compromising on security. SD-WAN edges monitor the health of various network links and use knowledge of application traffic and corporate policy to optimally route traffic over the corporate WAN. By optimizing the use of available transport links, SD-WAN provides high-performance, reliable, and cost-effective network connectivity.

Deploying SD-WAN as part of a SASE solution addresses the network security side of the problem. A SASE PoP integrates a full network security stack, enabling it to inspect traffic before optimally routing it to its destination. This enables the organization to take full advantage of network optimization without the risk that traffic will bypass perimeter-based defenses. Additionally, cloud-native SASE PoPs have the flexibility and scalability required to grow with the business.

Cato provides the world’s most robust single-vendor SASE platform, converging Cato SD-WAN and a cloud-native security service edge, Cato SSE 360, including ZTNA, SWG, CASB/DLP, and FWaaS into a global cloud service. With over 75 PoPs worldwide, Cato optimizes and secures application access for all users and locations, and is easily managed from a single pane of glass. Learn more about consolidating and streamlining your organization’s security architecture with Cato SASE Cloud by signing up for a free demo today.