VPNs take centre stage at ComNet

VPNs caught the spotlight at last week’s ComNet 2002 show, with a spirited VPN service-provider debate and the debut of offerings from the likes of WorldCom Inc. and Sprint Corp.

Network World (US)‘s VPN Showdown, which pitted AT&T Corp., Equant NV, Genuity Inc. and WorldCom executives against each other, attracted a standing-room-only crowd of 530 – one of the stronger showings at the conference, which drew a much smaller-than-usual attendance in light of industry and economic doldrums.

While customers continue to rely on frame relay, leased lines and other WAN infrastructure, VPNs are coming on strong, as evidenced by the two-thirds of U.S. companies that IDC says are already using them for at least some of their remote access. VPN service spending is expected to roughly triple over the next five years, from US$1.8 billion to US$5.3 billion, according to IDC.

To meet demand, the panellists said their companies are furiously expanding their VPN offerings, which range from fully managed services based on IP Security gear placed at customer sites, to carrier-based services built around Multi-protocol Label Switching (MPLS).

Equant leapt early into MPLS VPN services, but knows that some customers don’t want them, said Arjen Maarleveld, the global service provider’s head of products. “IPSec has its place, too, so we offer both,” he says.

Despite agreeing that customers want more choice, providers took a few shots at each other. “[AT&T does] a huge amount of business in switched voice. Is that perhaps causing you to go a bit slow on supporting voice over IP in your IP VPN platform?” Maarleveld asked Johnathan Cohen, director of advanced IP services for AT&T.

“I think it’s more a matter of, are our customers interested in buying those kinds of services?” Cohen replied. “But we certainly have built in no gates.” AT&T does offer voice-over-IP support for its managed Internet access customers, but not its VPN customers.

Later, Genuity Director of Product Strategy John Summers said that, at 32 countries, WorldCom offered services to the lowest number of nations among companies on the panel.

WorldCom indeed delivers to customers in 32 countries over its own network, but uses other vendors’ facilities to reach further than that, said Janel Crabtree, WorldCom’s director of global VPN services. “We’ve expanded that to over 60 because we have incorporated access from [third parties],” she said.

In response to a question from Network World (US) Editorial Director John Gallant, who moderated the debate, Genuity’s Summers acknowledged the company has taken a beating on Wall Street, as evidenced by a stock price hovering at around US$1.20 last week, down from a 52-week high of US$4.17. But Summers said customers should be confident in the company’s long-term prospects given that it has $500 million in funding that should help it get into the black. And he said the company should soon have access to even more resources given that Verizon, which owns 9 per cent of the company, is expected to increase that share to 80 per cent after clearing certain regulatory hurdles.

In another exchange, WorldCom’s Crabtree asked how Equant could get by with just a 155Mbps backbone, while others, including her company, boast a 10Gbps core. Equant’s Maarleveld seeks only the largest international customers, whose individual needs are high but that, in sum, don’t represent an enormous bandwidth drain. Equant does not sell to other carriers or hoards of consumers, so its backbone needs are relatively modest, Maarleveld said. “We see no reason to buy a lot of backbone we don’t need,” he added.

Sprint, WorldCom VPN News

Outside of the debate, Sprint and WorldCom announced new VPN services.

Sprint said it is using Cosine Communications gear to deliver a new managed network-based VPN service, slated for availability in the second quarter.

The service will protect customer traffic inside IPSec tunnels once it reaches Sprint’s network, although traffic will run unprotected between customer sites and Sprint points of presence. Sprint claims the service will be easier for it to manage than its existing managed VPN service because the carrier can support many customers from each Cosine device. While Sprint wouldn’t reveal how many sites it can support via the new service or how much it will cost, it said the offering should appeal most to companies looking to build out large VPNs that would be too difficult to manage and too time-consuming to roll out themselves.

Sprint’s existing managed VPN service relies on equipment placed at each customer site, protecting the access links between customers and Sprint POPs, but increasing the number of machines Sprint must manage to deliver the service.

Separately, WorldCom announced a way for customers of its IP VPN Dedicated Access, Fully Managed service to measure the latency, usage and reliability of their VPN connections. These reports are available in daily, weekly and monthly Web-based reports via a new service called VPN Interactive Performance Reporting (VIPeR). There is no extra charge for the service.