When to Use ATM

Although ATM has enjoyed considerable success within the marketplace, the debate continues: which is better—ATM or competing technologies such as Gigabit Ethernet in the campus and Packet Over SONET in the WAN? Well, like most other issues in the internetworking field, the answer is "it depends."

Specifically, ATM has distinct advantages in the following areas:

• Full support for timing-critical applications

• Full support for Quality of Service (QoS)

• Communication over long geographic distances

• Theoretically capable of almost unlimited throughput

Die-hard geeks often refer to timing-critical applications as isochronous applications. Isochronous is a fancy term used to describe applications such as voice and video that have very tight timing requirements. Stated differently, the chronous (greek word for timing) must be isos (Greek word for equal). Traditional techniques used to encode voice and video such as PCM for voice and H.320 for video are generally isochronous and can benefit greatly from ATM's circuit emulation capabilities. If your voice and video traffic is isochronous and you want to use a single network infrastructure for voice, video, and data, ATM is about your only choice other than bandwidth-inefficient TDM circuits. However, note that there is a growing movement away from isochronous traffic. For example, voice over IP and H.323 video are non-isochronous mechanisms that can run over frame-based media such as Ethernet.

At the time of writing, ATM is the only data technology in common use that reliably supports Quality of Service (QoS). This allows bandwidth and switch processing to be reserved and guaranteed for critical applications like voice and video. Although Ethernet, IP, and other data communication technologies are beginning to offer QoS, these efforts are still in their infancy. Many ATM users argue that Ethernet and IP-based forms of QoS are be better termed Class of Service (CoS) because the reservation and isolation mechanisms are not as strong as can be found in ATM (ATM was built from the ground up to support QoS).

For many network designers, one of the most compelling advantages of ATM is freedom from distance constraints. Even without repeaters, ATM supports much longer distances than any form of Ethernet. With repeaters (or additional switches), ATM can cover any distance. For example, with ATM it is very simple and cost-effective to purchase dark fiber between two sites that are up to 40 kilometers apart (much longer distances are possible) and connect the fiber to OC-12 long-reach ports on LS1010 ATM switches (no repeaters are required). By using repeaters and additional switches, ATM can easily accommodate networks of global scale. However, on the other hand, a number of vendors have introduced forms of Gigabit Ethernet ports capable of reaching 100 kilometers without a repeater such as Cisco's ZX GBIC.

Although this does not allow transcontinental Ethernet connections, it can accommodate many campus requirements.

ATM has historically been considered one of the fastest (if not the fastest) networking technologies available. However, this point has recently become the subject of considerable debate. The introduction of hardware-based, Gigabit-speed routers (a.k.a. Layer 3 switches) has nullified the view that routers are slow, causing many to argue that modern routers can be just as fast as ATM switches. On the other hand, ATM proponents argue that ATM's low-overhead switching mechanisms will always allow for higher bandwidth than Layer 3 switches can support. Only time will tell.

In short, the decision to use ATM is no longer a clear-cut choice. Each organization must carefully evaluate its current requirements and plans for future growth. For additional guidelines on when to use ATM and when not to use ATM, see Chapter 15, "Campus Design Implementation."

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