ATM may finally be ready to move out of the shadows and into the WAN spotlight
LIKE A KID BRINGING home a bad report card, asynchronous transfer mode technology has been charged with not living up to its potential. CIOs have scoffed at its uses as a WAN protocol, but that could soon change.
Many CIOs who previously decided against using ATM for various reasons are now reconsidering their decisions. "For organizations that want to carrry data, video and voice on a WAN, and handle the different traffic types intelligently, ATM is the best way to go," says Raj Jain, a professor of computer science at Ohio State University in Columbus and an active member of the ATM Forum, the ATM standards-setting organization.
For years, CIOs who wanted to deploy ATM on a WAN had to deal with the mess of constantly shifting standards. "The result was that organizations didn't know where the standards were going to settle out, and that helped slow ATM's market penetration," says David Peterson, a telecommunications analyst at Datapro, a Delran, N.J., market research firm. Peterson notes that the situation has stabilized over the past couple of years as the ATM Forum has worked with vendors and users to reach a consensus on a wide array of ATM-related technologies. "It's getting better all the time," says Peterson, "although work still needs to be done on providing strengthening voice standards."
With ATM benchmarks becoming more solid, a wide array of telecommunications carriers have begun rolling out public ATM networks. The services allow organizations without the internal resources to deploy a private ATM network to fully embrace ATM technology. Robert Lisenbee, director of business development for 3Com's broadband access division in Santa Clara, Calif., notes that public networks allow organizations to create a lower-cost, scalable WAN. "Instead of running a leased line to and from every site, the sites can just plug into the WAN as needed," he says. Lisenbee adds that many public ATM network carriers also offer customers the opportunity to upgrade smoothly from frame relay by allowing both protocols to exist on the same network.
Still, many CIOs continue to stick with frame relay as their primary protocol out of a fear of not being able to cost-justify ATM's added bandwidth across an entire WAN. "Until recently, this strategy made some sense, since ATM wasn't able to provide a cost-effective bandwidth smaller than T3 [lines]," says Jain. But inverse multiplexing, a relatively new standards-based solution, has changed the situation, providing the slower T1 speeds widely used by many organizations. "Inverse multiplexing is forcing many organizations to reevaluate their WAN strategy," says Jain. Although MCI is the only major carrier currently offering inverse multiplexing, competitors are expected to jump on the bandwagon soon.
ATM will play a major role for most organizations in the years ahead, according to Joe Lueckenhoff, AT&Ts vice president for data network services. "The basic pieces are finally in place," he says. "The market feels a lot like frame did in 1992. It appears that the same sort of explosive growth is about to take place."
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