Frame relay carriers lock horns

If you had to design the ideal frame relay service, it would provide lots of ports in cities in which you have the most sites, national and international coverage, gobs of managed service options and a watertight service-level agreement (SLA). Oh, and it would be cheap, too.

One thing was clear after last week's Network World Frame Relay Showdown at ComNet/DC '99: nobody offers all those options. But the seven frame relay vendors on the panel vied to demonstrate which of them comes closest, and they revealed some surprises along the way.

The event pitted the three frame relay market leaders -- AT&T, MCI WorldCom and Sprint - not only against one another but against a handful of other carriers.

Right off the bat, AT&T was questioned about its years-long reliance on Cisco's frame relay switches. But AT&T's Joe Lueckenhoff said the carrier actually has a "multivendor strategy", with different switches performing different functions. However, he conceded that users may still have all their ports on the same Cisco switches that apparently caused the 36-hour outage on AT&T's net last April.

Lueckenhoff also turned the question of switching platforms back on his key competitors. Noting that MCI WorldCom is in the process of upgrading from an old Bay Networks platform to new, higher capacity Ascend switches, he questioned whether users would be inconvenienced.

"We can put a permanent virtual circuit up overnight because we have a seamless network," Lueckenhoff said, challenging MCI WorldCom's John Scarborough.

That's when Scarborough decided to make some news. Yes, indeed, MCI WorldCom is upgrading its frame relay network to Ascend CBX 500 switches, he said. But he rejected the idea of calling it a "migration". Rather, Scarborough revealed that Ascend has developed software that creates what he called a "next-generation, network-to-network interface", or NNI, between the two platforms. The difference between this and a traditional NNI between two carrier networks is that the new NNI provides "end-to-end visibility between the two networks", he claimed.

Then AT&T got help from Qwest's Mack Greene, who brought up the issue of Sprint maintaining two platforms. National newcomer Qwest uses a single Ascend platform for its frame relay and ATM customers. Sprint's Brad Hokamp conceded that older Sprint customers are on an Alcatel frame relay platform, while newer customers are on Nortel Networks frame/ATM switches. But he added that the newer network provides LAN and SNA classes of service -- a feature not provided by the other two leaders.

MCI WorldCom's Scarborough also tweaked Sprint's Hokamp over Sprint's comparative lack of local facilities. He noted that Sprint's recently touted 100 per cent network availability guarantee for frame relay only applies where customers happen to be connected to one of Sprint's Broadband Metropolitan Area Networks.

By contrast, Scarborough claimed MCI can run frame relay and other services end-to-end across 81 markets via its On-Net service.

But the question of what creates a "seamless" end-to-end connection got a good workout, with much of the argument centering on NNIs.

The carrier that most relies on NNIs is Intermedia, which typically connects with RBOC's local frame networks. Long-distance carriers often can't handle lots of sites in one local calling area without backhauling the traffic to a faraway switch, said Intermedia's Michael Johnson.

That caught AT&T in an apparent contradiction. AT&T has avoided NNIs with other domestic carriers, claiming they create inconsistencies in user features. Yet AT&T admits it's using NNIs internationally to connect some of its overseas markets.

The problem with proprietary NNIs is that they make it difficult to provide users with Web-based management tools for dissimilar platforms, Lueckenhoff said. And they make it hard to manage and reconfigure PVCs.

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More about Alcatel-LucentAscendAT&TBay NetworksComnetIntermediaMCIMCI WorldComNortel NetworksQwestSprintWorldCom

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