Tracking frame trends

By John Dix, Network World |  Networking

One of the things I did at Interop two weeks ago was pester people about frame relay network trends.

Conventional wisdom had it that frame growth would start to taper off by now, slowed by the adoption of ATM and Internet-based virtual private networks (VPN). And based on feedback from carriers, that is happening, but not as fast as initially thought.

Although percentage growth figures vary, most carriers say they are expecting 50% growth in ports this year. That's down from 70% to 100% annual port growth for the past few years. Most carriers expect growth to slow to 30% to 40% next year, but by then, market researchers say the frame service market will be a $7.5 billion business.

General trends these carriers report:

Speeds are climbing. While 56K bit/sec access is still the norm, all carriers report greater demand for 128K, 256K and even 384K. The emergence of DSL as an access option will help propel the migration upward.

Marrying frame to IP and the Internet is creating interesting hybrids. MCI WorldCom's Frame Relay Internet Gateway service lets customers access the Internet using existing frame trunks. And AT&T's IP Enabled Frame Relay service, scheduled for commercial availability next month, will let you build fully meshed frame networks that still only require a single permanent virtual circuit (PVC) per location. The secret: use of tag switching to label packets at the edge so they cross predefined IP paths.

MCI WorldCom reports that demand for frame relay to ATM interworking has been greater in the past nine months than it has been in the past three years.

The largest customers are building ATM core networks that are fed by frame. T-3 trunks are used to link ATM nodes that are dropped into regions as amalgamation points for frame relay links. Qwest points out, however, that some customers prefer the simplicity of frame and are simply building fatter frame backbones.

ATM is emerging as an attractive alternative to frame in some situations, particularly at T-1 speeds. Qwest, which prices T-1 and T-3 ATM at the same level as similar speed frame relay (less when you include the frame PVC costs), says ATM is growing at 80% to 100% per year.

The great unknown is how migration to 'Net-based VPNs will slow adoption of frame relay. But everyone agreed that VPNs won't displace frame in the next five years because of concerns about things such as security and latency. Many, however, see VPNs as the ultimate endgame.

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