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Frame Relay, Still The Preferred wan Option

Frame Relay is a technology that is used to create wide area networks mostly connecting locations across the globe. It has been a preferred WAN technology for many years globally and in India. But with the emergence of the IP protocol and its open standard, the first real competition to the Frame Relay technology has also been introduced.

Today after over a decade of existence, Frame Relay is seeing some slow down in terms of its users and the main reason being the wide area networking capability provided by the IP protocol. In fact, quite a few market watchers from major vendor companies such as Cisco or 3Com feel that many big customers are being attracted by newer technologies such as ATM, VPN or IP. Moreover, companies in India that have been traditionally using X.25 as a WAN technology will adopt IP faster than Frame Relay, which was designed to work over ISDN and was meant to overcome the disadvantages of X.25.

Says Chandan Mendiratta, consulting engineer, Cisco India, "As we see Internet evolving and 'any-to-any' connectivity becoming prevalent, Frame Relay might see a set back. With new devices such as PDAs, mobile phones demanding support for various applications such as WAP that have been introduced; Frame Relay has not been able to scale up to such demands. In fact, it was never designed to support such level of any-to-any connectivity."

Frame Relay basically is a service for people who want an absolute bare bone, connections oriented way to move bits from location A to location B. It can be at best thought of as a virtual leased line. Users can lease a permanent virtual pipe between two locations and can then send frames of up to 1600 bytes between them.
In the OSI model of networking, Frame Relay works at the second layer and is thus not capable of handling certain applications. On the other hand, IP works at the Layer 3 of the OSI model. Thus it has become the protocol of choice to support such real-time, mission critical applications. "Since there is support for IP in almost all devices and it provides many choices as far as any to any connectivity and as this is independent of what we use at the physical and data link layers, IP has become a technology of choice," adds Mendiratta.

Vikas Sehgal, technical manager, CommWorks, a division of 3Com, points out that besides IP, ATM is another WAN protocol that is becoming a threat to Frame Relay's existing market. According to him ATM will see better fate than Frame Relay as it can be used at the LAN level also. But with Ethernet becoming the standard protocol for LAN, IP stands out to be the clear winner. "Even the vendors are not very keen to push this technology and you find most of them focussing on IP products. This is mainly because the standards in Frame Relay have not changed much or developed much since inception," he adds.

Development or not, when we talked to the users, most of them said that they would prefer to use Frame Relay to connect their offices. According to Ravi Malhotra, head, information systems, Apollo Tyres, the company is currently working on the blueprint for a Wide Area Network and they are considering both IP and Frame Relay. He adds, "But I feel that we will settle for Frame Relay as it is more secure and the cost of deploying a Frame Relay network is cheaper than that of a IP based network. In addition, Frame Relay can carry bigger packets of data at one go."

Agreeing with Malhotra, C.R. Narayanan, company IT Manager, Alstom Power explains, "Frame Relay is a better technology as it let's you burst your traffic in the sense that at any given point of time the user can send a big packet of data. Because of Committed Information Rate (CIR) and port spread bursting of traffic is possible."
In fact, with Frame Relay, multiple connections are possible on a single line. This reduces the administration cost and in turn the cost of the leased pipe. Even in the network infrastructure, Frame Relay offers interconnectivity in a meshed set-up, thus making connection of the networks easier.

Says Avnish Dutt, country manager, Global One, " In international data transport, Frame Relay offers two advantages that are not offered by IP. They are security and classes of service for different applications. For example corporates with ERP, e-mail and RDBMS running on the network can prioritize and bandwidth can be allocated likewise. But in alternative technologies such as IP, that may not be possible."

The logical components of Frame Relay like Permanent Virtual Circuits (PVCs) can ensure that the data transfer is secure. In addition, the CIR also improves the quality of service within the Frame Relay network. Avers Narayanan of Alstom Power, "Today IP is popular because of its open standard and easy of adaptability. But from a technology perspective, Frame Relay is definitely better."

Seeing the popularity of this service, Global One now has plans to enhance its Frame Relay service by introducing next generation Frame Relay technology that will give higher throughput and various classes of service. Currently it is offering a 2Mbps throughput to its customers in the country.

Even vendors such as Cisco have been proponents of Frame Relay as it is a member with the Frame Relay Forum. Cisco's Mendiratta informs, "With an initial product release in December 1990, Cisco was the first router-bridge vendor to support frame relay. Cisco's Frame Relay offering supports both public service and private backbone network configurations and complies with the consortium specification developed by Cisco and other companies.

Various LMI (Local Management Interface) extensions are included. In fact, we provide Frame Relay support on all router platforms and industry leading multi-service switches such as IGX and BPX switches. As a member of the Frame Relay forum, we take part in different trials and are involved actively in enhancements of this technology."

The statistical multiplexing in this technology provides more flexible and efficient utilization of available bandwidth; it can be used without TDM techniques, or on top of channels provided by TDM systems.

Vikas Sehgal of CommWorks also sees an increase in the usage of Frame Relay services with the laying of optical fiber cables across the globe and in the country. In fact, the maximum usage will be in the MNCs and the software development units. "While IP has been a success at retail, most enterprises prefer to use Frame Relay for their wide area networks. They prefer not to rely on IP for their mission critical applications, " says Dutt.

As the need for connectivity increases and users look for security, lower cost and flexibility, Frame Relay is going to see a burst of growth. In fact, according to a research projection, by 2004 the international Frame Relay market will be over $ 600 million in the Asia Pacific region. What with popularity of IP, and the need for security, most industry watchers feel that with a little more development, Frame Relay and IP will coexist in corporate networks.

Priyanka Bhattacharya, can be reached at priyanka_b@email.com

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