Buzz Issue: The sketchy promise of extended SLAs.

By Denise Pappalardo, Network World |  Development

Strong service-level agreements that span multiple ISP networks would be paradise for users, but so far paradise is still lost.

The proving ground for these "extended SLAs" has become VPN services because businesses want strong security and solid performance. ISPs say they can handle these requests as long as all employees and business partners connect via the same Internet backbone. Such a demand is not only inflexible but also unrealistic. By now, most midsize to large companies already have dedicated Internet connections that they won't swap merely to communicate with business partners through an extranet.

Extranets notwithstanding, users still hanker for extended SLAs. These would let users create corporate VPNs that employees could access from multiple ISP networks. As any network executive will tell you, no matter how many points of presence an ISP has, some employees will still reside in cities without one.

For now, businesses must devise their own solutions when building a VPN over multiple ISPs. For example, the Automotive Network eXchange (ANX) has contracted for cooperation among five ISPs that provide access to its extranet. Of course, with more than 10,000 businesses expected to connect, the ANX has negotiating power to get ISPs to conform to one SLA. Most companies aren't in that league.

While ISPs would ideally work together, they haven't been inclined to do so. Their reticence has opened the door for new service providers. CoreExpress, QoS Networks and SmartPipes, three start-ups launched this year, each promise to offer extended SLAs and other choices for supporting VPN traffic over multiple ISP nets.

More at the core

CoreExpress plans to offer SLAs that span all service providers that connect to its network. It already has agreements with three of the top four service providers and expects to serve nine markets when it launches its service later this month, says Tony Zeis, chief technology officer at CoreExpress.

The carrier is building a nationwide fiber-optic network with a network operations center (NOC) at its headquarters in St. Louis. It will deploy Multi-protocol Label Switching (MPLS) throughout the network, which will use 23,000 miles of dark fiber from Level 3 Communications and routers from Juniper Networks and Cisco, Zeis says. Using MPLS, CoreExpress will be able to prioritize customer traffic and offer performance SLAs for availability, latency and packet loss. Business users will use any vendor's VPN access equipment.

"hart picture"Hughes Network Systems (HNS), in Germantown, Md., plans to test the CoreExpress service. It hopes to cut costs by eliminating some of its hundreds of frame relay and private-line connections, while it maintains or improves performance, says Chris Hart, director of network security and planning at HNS.

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