IP VPNs may spell end for frame relay

Frame relay has been around since we were all drooling over Intel Corp.’s “high-power” 486 chip in 1991. In the ensuing nine years, we’ve seen four new generations of microprocessors, each twice as fast as its predecessor. While speed increased exponentially, price per bit dropped just as dramatically.

And there sat frame relay: stagnant speeds and stagnant prices.

But then digital subscriber line (DSL) and Internet virtual private network (VPN) services forced users to consider expanding beyond their comfort zone. They offered dirt-cheap prices — US$50 per month or less — for frame relay-calibre speeds using DSL, plus direct feeds to the Internet. Voila! You have a simple, cheap IP-based VPN right out of the box! You have instantaneous, any-to-any connectivity between locations on the VPN and equipment and protocol compatibility with the rest of the world.

And there sat frame relay: stagnant speeds and stagnant prices.

To be fair, DSL and Internet VPNs have growing pains to overcome before they can outshine frame relay on all fronts. While speeds are often as good, if not better, than frame relay, serious shortcomings regarding network performance and reliability exist.

No concrete end-to-end network performance guarantees exist. As a result, frustration about network congestion and downtime is exacerbated by the fact that no single provider has direct control over solving the problem. Although an Internet VPN provider might assume overall responsibility for its service, it is dependent on other providers to get the job done. The downside about these “magical” Internet clouds is you are never sure which magician to blame when your network turns into a frog and croaks.

This contrasts with frame relay service, in which one provider typically has direct control over the entire service — unless, of course, multiple frame relay networks are connected together using Network-to-Network Interfaces.

Even with the cheaper prices, global reach and simplicity of Internet VPNs, one gap remains — guaranteed reliability. This is usually the reason companies spend extra to get their own frame relay VPN in the first place.

However, a few providers have deployed public IP networks to support business users. Instead of using the Internet, the VPN traffic goes over a particular provider’s own IP network, minimizing concerns customers have about deploying Internet VPNs.

Bottom line: Watch out frame relay! IP VPNs pose a serious threat. In fact, they will pose an even more lethal threat as service providers implement more robust IP security, multiprotocol support, quality of service and service-level agreements.

Is frame relay dead? The future certainly doesn’t seem bright. The number of applications and network situations for which frame relay offers a better solution than IP VPNs continues to decline as IP solutions evolve.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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