Two industry trade associations - the MPLS & Frame Relay Alliance and the ATM Forum - have agreed to merge and "provide a huge boost to the multi-service interworking goals shared by both organisations".

The merger will take place by the end of the year, both announced [pdf], although what the merger organisation will be called remains undecided.

The decision comes in the same week that the Service Provider Council within the MPLS & Frame Relay Alliance issued a list of technical issues that it wants resolved. "It's the real-world stuff we have to deal with in a multi-vendor environment," says Doug O'Leary, chairman of the Service Provider Council and the director of enterprise solutions technology for Verizon.

For example, providers want standards that enable operations, administration and maintenance compatibility among frame relay, ATM and MPLS gear to address practical features such as latency, packet loss and jitter guarantees for carriers to offer to customers. "We want the ability to monitor and maintain the network end to end, not only for our own sanity but for service-level agreements," O'Leary says.

These are issues that sysadmins are all too aware of (see out feature here), that can create significant problems, and which are holding back their uptake (here's an overall summary).

The providers want standards to smooth the interoperability of technologies and to promote it among devices made by different vendors. Such interoperability is key to maintaining carriers' basic tenet that they rely on no single vendor to provide their network infrastructure, he says.

While the yet-to-be-named group won't have the authority to create standards, its recommendations, known as implementation agreements, will likely become the basis for standards approved by other groups, said Erin Dunn, director of research services for Vertical Systems Group: "The IETF needs these feeder groups to send them implementation agreements."

This is even more important as IP-based services cut into frame relay, Dunn says. While frame relay dominates data services in the US - totaling $9.2 billion last year - and is still growing, its dominance is starting to wane, according to Vertical Systems. Carriers need MPLS prepared to handle IP services customers demand, she claimed.

Despite the march toward MPLS and IP services, frame relay will continue to dominate data services through 2008, Dunn said, but increasingly frame relay services will run over MPLS backbones, which could arguably make them MPLS services. These services also will exhibit features more akin to IP than frame relay, such as any-to-any connectivity without need for virtual circuits.