It wasn’t so long ago that calling a telco to order frame-relay circuits was the only feasible way to securely connect remote offices to headquarters. The typical frame-relay network consists of T1 and fractional T1 circuits connected via a frame switch located in a telco CO (central office), with all these circuits aggregated on a central circuit in the corporate datacenter. The recurring fees are costly, leaving IT directors little choice but to severely limit the bandwidth to remote sites. If 128Kbps circuits can do the job, albeit slowly, then up they go.
In the late 1990s, when many of these networks were built, they weren’t expected to carry e-mail traffic or support rich applications. When the only traffic on the wire consisted of terminal sessions to an AS/400, maybe 128Kbps really did fit the bill. Now, of course, the playing field is much different, but the prices are not. Today, it’s not uncommon to find a frame-relay network of reasonable size and geographic spread priced at $30,000 per month. For overseas sites, the prices increase exponentially.
Fortunately, there are a number of ways to reduce costs on your WAN. And frame relay has significant competition. A number of new technologies have emerged that can breathe new life into your WAN and potentially save you a bundle in the process.
Let’s make a deal
If frame is your game, contract negotiations are one key to controlling costs. Frame-relay carriers will often drop their pricing if the CIR (committed information rate) on each leg of the network is low. The CIR determines the absolute minimum bandwidth available on a circuit, regardless of its rated bandwidth. If a 512Kbps link carries a 256Kbps CIR, the carrier cannot be held liable for bandwidth levels below 256Kbps, even if it has significantly oversubscribed the frame-relay switch.
A low CIR level can sweeten the deal on a frame-relay circuit by slightly reducing monthly costs. Unfortunately, many contracts are signed with CIRs in place that would render the network effectively inoperable. Some contracts are signed with a 0Kbps CIR, which essentially allows the carrier to drop the network at any time.
Another way to reduce costs is to sign a long-term contract. But all too often, corporations sign long-term agreements only to find they can’t easily escape them when better offers abound. Fortunately, there are myriad technical solutions available today that can provide a solid WAN infrastructure without the cost headaches of frame relay.
The darling of the WAN these days is MPLS (multiprotocol label switching). At its essence, MPLS is a managed, nonencrypted network of traditional T1 or fractional T1 service between sites. But MPLS providers encapsulate the traffic from these links and tunnel it to other sites on the network, switching packets at higher layers than they would for traditional WANs. Because MPLS networks require only local-loop access to the provider’s POP (point of presence) and are then switched and routed through the provider’s network, more bandwidth is available at lower cost.
Desmond Fuller, IT director at iBiquity Digital, is in the process of moving his WAN through its third iteration. Fuller migrated to ATM from frame relay a few years ago to better support VoIP and videoconferencing. Now the stage is set for a move to MPLS.