Braving the move from frame relay to IP VPN

Waters Corp., a Milford, Mass., company that makes testing products for pharmaceutical, chemical and other companies, has been putting its WAN through some testing.

The subject of the test: whether to stick with a reliable but expensive frame relay network or move to an IP VPN that promises to deliver more bandwidth for less money, but possibly with lower performance and other unpleasant surprises.

As it turns out, Waters has seen enough evidence – including new gear that provides for adequate back-up links – to convince the company to move to an IP VPN, albeit slowly.

Waters has relied on frame relay services from AT&T Corp. to connect about 27 international sites to corporate headquarters. Most of the traffic running over the network is generated via SAP and Lotus Notes applications, says Bob Andrews, director of worldwide communications for Waters.

The company began installing IP VPN links almost two years ago to connect several sites that previously had no link to corporate headquarters.

“We weren’t brave enough at that time to go out and replace our frame network,” Andrews says.

But the IP VPN connections performed well, and when increasing traffic forced Waters to look at adding bandwidth to some frame relay sites, Andrews decided to go with IP VPN connections. There wasn’t much of a cost difference between 64Kbps frame and 128Kbps IP VPN links.

“But as you increased the frame speed to 128Kbps and higher, it became significantly more expensive than the VPNs,” he adds.

Andrews got quotes from a number of service providers, including AT&T, UUNET, WorldCom Inc. and Equant NV, for dedicated Internet access. However, he found that none could serve all the countries where Waters had offices.

Andrews ended up choosing UUNET dedicated Internet access services in the countries the carrier could serve. In other countries, the company went with local access options.

Waters began replacing some of its frame relay lines late last year.

“One thing we quickly found was that DSL services were more broadly available internationally than we thought,” Andrews says.

He wasn’t sure how well DSL would perform, especially in countries such as China and India. But he’s been pleasantly surprised so far.

“In fact,” Andrews says, “our poorest performing VPN was one we installed in Tokyo with a dedicated Internet access circuit.”

Waters is basing its IP VPN on equipment from Cisco Systems Inc. and SonicWall Inc., whose gear is replacing that from Nokia. SonicWall got the nod because its equipment better met Waters’ need to support back-up links.

“If there are two Internet providers using Dynamic Host Configuration Protocol, [the equipment] can cut over from one to the other right away,” Andrews says.

Waters also uses the gear to back up its dedicated Internet access links with ISDN, although Andrews says the ISDN backup hasn’t been as automatic as he would like.

Waters already has Cisco 2500 routers installed at its international sites for frame connections and continues to use those devices for the IP VPN links. If the connection drops on the 2500, the router is supposed to fail over automatically to a Cisco 760 router, which supports the ISDN connection. However, Andrews says, the 2500 doesn’t always fail over properly to the 760.

“What we found is that the 760s were based on technology from a Cisco acquisition and never worked well with IOS [Cisco’s operating system for its routers and switches],” he says.

While the 760s remain in place, Andrews is searching for an even better back-up architecture.

Andrews says it’s difficult to calculate how much Waters has saved by moving from frame to IP VPNs, because frame and connectivity prices vary so much from one country to the next.

In Denmark, Waters was paying about US$1,500 per month for a 64Kbps frame relay circuit. The company now pays US$253 per month for 512Kbps DSL.

In Spain, Waters paid about US$1,200 per month for its 64Kbps frame. Now it pays US$1,050 per month for a dedicated Internet access circuit.

Even in areas where the savings aren’t substantial, Andrews says, the performance boost has been significant. Waters’ lowest IP VPN link is 128Kbps, and the IP VPN connections range up to 512Kbps.

Waters has yet to experience any significant drawbacks with moving to an IP VPN.

But one minor drawback is that instead of dealing with one provider for all its remote needs, the company now has to deal with several local providers.

“Instead of us calling the carrier from corporate, each individual country calls the ISP that’s responsible,” Andrews says. “That hasn’t been a major problem so far.”

Another inconvenience is that with frame relay, Waters could monitor its bandwidth utilization by application. So far, the firm has not yet found a way to do that with the IP VPN, although Andrews says there may be a way for him to break down the traffic with the SonicWall boxes.

Ultimately, Waters plans to switch all its frame connections to IP VPN links. But the company is in no rush to switch.

“We’re going to keep monitoring the performance and seek back-up solutions before proceeding too quickly,” Andrews says.

Frame Relay Hangs In

When service providers began introducing IP VPNs a few years ago, many observers believed IP VPNs would begin taking significant market share away from frame relay services in short order.

After all, frame relay was a 10-year-old technology that offered point-to-point connections, as opposed to the more flexible multipoint capability of IP. Frame services also cost more than a comparable “IP VPN.

Despite its apparent disadvantages, frame relay is still going strong. In one study, research firm Vertical Systems Group Inc. found that only 16 per cent of 563 multisite companies surveyed planned to move from frame relay to IP VPNs.

The reason for frame relay’s staying power is that it’s a stable technology that large businesses are comfortable with, whereas IP VPNs are still a relatively new technology with questions about the quality of service they’re capable of supporting, says Steven Taylor, president of consultancy Distributed Networking Associates Inc. and publisher/editor in chief of

Despite the cost savings associated with IP VPNs vs. frame relay, Taylor says you’re not likely to come across as many companies adding IP VPNs to their frame nets as you might expect. “Most people are comfortable enough with IP VPNs that they go all the way, or they’re so uncomfortable with them they stick with frame relay,” he says.

Another reason companies may be avoiding hybrid frame/IP VPN networks is that managing two technologies is tougher than managing one, Taylor says.