Robert Gourley

Frame relay pioneer tells his story

Frame relay is 10 years old. The first virtual networking technology was a tough sell initially; businesses had to be lured from dedicated lines to a shared public network. Today, frame remains a top-selling technology. Senior Writer Max Smetannikov spoke to Robert Gourley, who took an existing standard and developed the first frame relay network in 1991 for WilTel, which was later acquired by WorldCom. Gourley holds the 1997 "Founding Public Frame Relay" Global Technology Award from the International Communications Association.

How did it all start?

The original frame relay standard was developed in the 1970s or the 1980s as a service for an ISDN [Integrated Services Digital Network] technology. No one really had developed an implementation for it. So the work was lying there dormant. The first successful implementation that I was aware of was done by a start-up company in California called StrataCom. Someone in that company decided it was an interesting protocol. They entered into an agreement with Sprint, and Sprint funded some of that early research to bring this protocol to actual hardware on StrataComs platform.

But Sprint was unclear at that time about what they were going to do with the hardware. They had an idea to build some private networks. About that time Sprint got caught up in the Alcatel Data Networks acquisition . . . changed horses and said: "All of our hardware will be built by Alcatel." They almost dropped the project with StrataCom. Thats when I came in and decided that, rather than build private networks, you could use this protocol to build a public network.

At that time, WilTel, the company that we all were working for, had put in fiber. The only way to transmit data at relatively high speed then was X.25. And X.25 was designed for nonfiber-based facilities. So I came up with an idea to build a public network out of frame relay and convinced WilTel management. I got a million dollars, went to StrataCom, and bought 10 switches, for $100,000 a piece. We didnt really have a lab trial, we just went ahead and installed those switches out in the field, connected them together, and then went out and started looking for some customers willing to put some traffic on. On March 25, 1991, we went public with it.

Why did you look at frame relay specifically for a public network?

It was more accidental than anything. I was interested in developing some new product lines for WilTel. I was interested in building some fault-tolerant T-1 [1.5 megabits-per-second] networks. I was out looking at equipment that could do that. I looked at NET, TimePlex [Group] and a few other companies that were building TDM [Time Division Multiplexing] equipment, and somebody told me StrataCom had a similar platform. So I hopped on a plane and went to California, and sure enough, they could do what I wanted them to do — and they said: "While you are here, we would like you to look at this project we got to build a frame relay interface for our switch." And I said: "Whats frame relay?"

What happened when you launched the service?

The first customer we turned on was a company from Richardson, Texas, called Convex Computer. They built a small supercomputer product, and were later acquired by Hewlett-Packard. But at that time they had a guy who was pretty revolutionary who would try new things. The second customer we got was Sybase. It was really slow growth for the beginning of 1991, all the way through the summer. By the end of 1991 we only had between 10 and 20 customers.

How did you sell it?

Customer education was a major hurdle. Nobody knew what the benefits were. Another big question was: How do I keep other companies from looking at my data? We had a hell of a time trying to explain virtual private networking. The first big-name customer we got didnt come along until 1992 or 1993, and I remember it was Anheuser-Busch out of St. Louis. We didnt even have a switch in St. Louis then.

What has frame relay meant?

Frame relay was the very first virtual private network technology. It pioneered the space of VPNs for things like VPN and MPLS [Multiprotocol Label Switching]. Somebody had to be first, and frame relay happened to be it. I think the technology has shown surprising longevity. With Moores Law and as fast as things happen in data communications, it is surprising to me people still use it and people like WorldCom still turn on new customers on it.

What catches your eye today?

MPLS is talked about as the next Internet Protocol VPN technology. That is where the market seems to be aiming.

Are you hopping on a plane to see any new companies?

No. Not me. Frame relay was a lot of work, but also a lot of fun. I enjoyed every minute I worked on frame relay at WilTel and WorldCom, and would do it again in a heartbeat. We worked very long hours, almost around the clock, but all of us probably didnt have any more fun doing anything in our lives than working on that project.