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ATM catches up with hype

Left for dead after hype far outpaced reality, the high-speed technology is finally reaching maturity, buoyed by wide adoption.

Left for dead after hype far outpaced reality, the high-speed technology known as ATM (asynchronous transfer mode) is finally reaching maturity, buoyed by wide adoption in telecommunications and service provider networks.

Long thought of as a complex alternative, ATM has won converts as a convergence of multiple types of traffic over a single pipe continues within the networking industry and standards stabilize for the technology. After a sluggish start, the technology now is being more widely used, and has retained a core of devotees, despite expected encroachment by a new high-powered form of Ethernet that moves data at gigabit speeds.

Now, most industry observers concede that there is room for the two technologies in the market.

"ATM is really beginning to happen more widely and broadly," said George Dobrowski, president of the ATM Forum and director of broadband switching and signaling technology at Bellcore. "We're moving into the era of convergence."

Among such converts is Sprint, which has announced a new service, Integrated On-Demand Network, based upon ATM. The telco is touting the new capability as a radical network redesign intended to make the company's telecommunications equipment and services more cost-efficient, particularly for Internet traffic.

The market for large back-end ATM-based switches grew 77 percent in 1997, according to market researcher the Dell'Oro Group, with revenues expected to climb another 60 percent this year.

Against this backdrop, a variety of players are gathering in San Jose, California, this week for ATM Year 98 to showcase new technology and continue to fill holes in ATM's functions.

The technology got a boost last month when volume player Intel chose to partner with ATM stalwart Fore Systems to add the technology to its roster of networking options.

As reported, Cisco will show off three new ATM-based switches this week and add software support so that applications based on IP (Internet protocol) can be delivered effectively across an ATM link via multiprotocol label switching techniques, or "tags." Cisco is the dominant provider of equipment for Sprint's network.

The rollout includes two new switches for the "edge" of ATM layouts and a new core 8750 device that will be able to handle terabit-speed rates.

Cisco is focusing on delivery of IP-based services. "We think it's the next huge wave of traffic coming at our carriers," said Stan Kramer, director of marketing for Cisco's wide area business unit.

While Ethernet will remain the dominant means to connect PCs and servers together in local area networks and departments, ATM should continue to make gains as an interconnection technology for multiple sites on a campus or over a wide area, according to analysts.

Not to be left out of the party, Cabletron Systems also announced new ATM capabilities within its equipment. Shipping in July for under $1,200 per port, the new SmartSwitch 6500 includes a 10-gbps chassis and is targeted at the "edge" of networks to feed various local installations. The company also announced enhancements to Digital Equipment's ATM-based devices.

Others showing off new technology include Xedia, which is demonstrating quality-of-service software techniques with IP-over-ATM layouts.