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ATM (Asynchronous Transfer Mode) - an explanation

A method of packaging and switching information within 53-octet cells that will be deployed for both local area network use and wide area networking.ATM is a cell-switching and multiplexing technology that combines the benefits of circuit switching (guaranteed capacity and constant transmission delay) with those of packet switching (flexibility and efficiency for intermittent traffic). It provides scalable bandwidth from a few megabits per second (Mbps) to many gigabits per second (Gbps). Because of its asynchronous nature, ATM is more efficient than synchronous technologies, such as time-division multiplexing (TDM).

With TDM, each user is assigned to a time slot, and no other station can send in that time slot. If a station has much data to send, it can send only when its time slot comes up, even if all other time slots are empty. However, if a station has nothing to transmit when its time slot comes up, the time slot is sent empty and is wasted. Because ATM is asynchronous, time slots are available on demand with information identifying the source of the transmission contained in the header of each ATM cell.

ATM transfers information in fixed-size units called cells. Each cell consists of 53 octets, or bytes. The first 5 bytes contain cell-header information, and the remaining 48 contain the payload (user information). Small, fixed-length cells are well suited to transferring voice and video traffic because such traffic is intolerant of delays that result from having to wait for a large data packet to download, among other things.

An ATM network is made up of an ATM switch and ATM endpoints. An ATM switch is responsible for cell transit through an ATM network. The job of an ATM switch is well defined: It accepts the incoming cell from an ATM endpoint or another ATM switch. It then reads and updates the cell header information and quickly switches the cell to an output interface toward its destination. An ATM endpoint (or end system) contains an ATM network interface adapter. Examples of ATM endpoints are workstations, routers, digital service units (DSUs), LAN switches, and video coder-decoders (CODECs). Figure 27-3 illustrates an ATM network made up of ATM switches and ATM endpoints.

An ATM network consists of a set of ATM switches interconnected by point-to-point ATM links or interfaces. ATM switches support two primary types of interfaces: UNI and NNI. The UNI connects ATM end systems (such as hosts and routers) to an ATM switch. The NNI connects two ATM switches.

Depending on whether the switch is owned and located at the customer's premises or is publicly owned and operated by the telephone company, UNI and NNI can be further subdivided into public and private UNIs and NNIs. A private UNI connects an ATM endpoint and a private ATM switch. Its public counterpart connects an ATM endpoint or private switch to a public switch. A private NNI connects two ATM switches within the same private organization. A public one connects two ATM switches within the same public organization.

An additional specification, the broadband intercarrier interface (B-ICI), connects two public switches from different service providers. Figure 27-4 illustrates the ATM interface specifications for private and public networks.
Three types of ATM services exist: permanent virtual circuits (PVC), switched virtual circuits (SVC), and connectionless service (which is similar to SMDS).
PVC allows direct connectivity between sites. In this way, a PVC is similar to a leased line. Among its advantages, PVC guarantees availability of a connection and does not require call setup procedures between switches. Disadvantages of PVCs include static connectivity and manual setup. Each piece of equipment between the source and the destination must be manually provisioned for the PVC. Furthermore, no network resiliency is available with PVC.
An SVC is created and released dynamically and remains in use only as long as data is being transferred. In this sense, it is similar to a telephone call. Dynamic call control requires a signaling protocol between the ATM endpoint and the ATM switch. The advantages of SVCs include connection flexibility and call setup that can be handled automatically by a networking device. Disadvantages include the extra time and overhead required to set up the connection.

ATM networks are fundamentally connection-oriented, which means that a virtual channel (VC) must be set up across the ATM network prior to any data transfer. (A virtual channel is roughly equivalent to a virtual circuit.) Two types of ATM connections exist: virtual paths, which are identified by virtual path identifiers, and virtual channels, which are identified by the combination of a VPI and a virtual channel identifier (VCI). A virtual path is a bundle of virtual channels, all of which are switched transparently across the ATM network based on the common VPI. All VPIs and VCIs, however, have only local significance across a particular link and are remapped, as appropriate, at each switch. A transmission path is the physical media that transports virtual channels and virtual paths.

The basic operation of an ATM switch is straightforward: The cell is received across a link on a known VCI or VPI value. The switch looks up the connection value in a local translation table to determine the outgoing port (or ports) of the connection and the new VPI/VCI value of the connection on that link. The switch then retransmits the cell on that outgoing link with the appropriate connection identifiers. Because all VCIs and VPIs have only local significance across a particular link, these values are remapped, as necessary, at each switch.

The ATM physical layer has four functions: Cells are converted into a bitstream, the transmission and receipt of bits on the physical medium are controlled, ATM cell boundaries are tracked, and cells are packaged into the appropriate types of frames for the physical medium. For example, cells are packaged differently for SONET than for DS-3/E-3 media types. The ATM physical layer is divided into two parts: the physical medium-dependent (PMD) sublayer and the transmission convergence (TC) sublayer. The PMD sublayer provides two key functions. First, it synchronizes transmission and reception by sending and receiving a continuous flow of bits with associated timing information. Second, it specifies the physical media for the physical medium used, including connector types and cable. Examples of physical medium standards for ATM include Synchronous Digital Hierarchy/Synchronous Optical Network (SDH/SONET), DS-3/E3, 155 Mbps over multimode fiber (MMF) using the 8B/10B encoding scheme, and 155 Mbps 8B/10B over shielded twisted-pair (STP) cabling. The TC sublayer has four functions: cell delineation, header error control (HEC) sequence generation and verification, cell-rate decoupling, and transmission frame adaptation. The cell delineation function maintains ATM cell boundaries, allowing devices to locate cells within a stream of bits. HEC sequence generation and verification generates and checks the header error control code to ensure valid data. Cell-rate decoupling maintains synchronization and inserts or suppresses idle (unassigned) ATM cells to adapt the rate of valid ATM cells to the payload capacity of the transmission system. Transmission frame adaptation packages ATM cells into frames acceptable to the particular physical layer implementation.

ATM supports two types of connections: point-to-point and point-to-multipoint. Point-to-point connects two ATM end systems and can be unidirectional (one-way communication) or bidirectional (two-way communication). Point-to-multipoint connects a single-source end system (known as the root node) to multiple destination end systems (known as leaves). Such connections are unidirectional only. Root nodes can transmit to leaves, but leaves cannot transmit to the root or to each other on the same connection. Cell replication is done within the ATM network by the ATM switches where the connection splits into two or more branches. It would be desirable in ATM networks to have bidirectional multipoint-to-multipoint connections. Such connections are analogous to the broadcasting or multicasting capabilities of shared-media LANs, such as Ethernet and Token Ring. A broadcasting capability is easy to implement in shared-media LANs, where all nodes on a single LAN segment must process all packets sent on that segment. Unfortunately, a multipoint-to-multipoint capability cannot be implemented by using AAL5, which is the most common AAL to transmit data across an ATM network. Unlike AAL3/4, with its Message Identifier (MID) field, AAL5 does not provide a way within its cell format to interleave cells from different AAL5 packets on a single connection. This means that all AAL5 packets sent to a particular destination across a particular connection must be received in sequence; otherwise, the destination reassembly process will be incapable of reconstructing the packets. This is why AAL5 point-to-multipoint connections can be only unidirectional. If a leaf node were to transmit an AAL5 packet onto the connection, for example, it would be received by both the root node and all other leaf nodes. At these nodes, the packet sent by the leaf could be interleaved with packets sent by the root and possibly other leaf nodes, precluding the reassembly of any of the interleaved packets.

ATM requires some form of multicast capability. AAL5 (which is the most common AAL for data) currently does not support interleaving packets, so it does not support multicasting. If a leaf node transmitted a packet onto an AAL5 connection, the packet could be intermixed with other packets and be improperly reassembled. Three methods have been proposed for solving this problem: VP multicasting, multicast server, and overlaid point-to-multipoint connection. Under the first solution, a multipoint-to-multipoint VP links all nodes in the multicast group, and each node is given a unique VCI value within the VP. Interleaved packets hence can be identified by the unique VCI value of the source. Unfortunately, this mechanism would require a protocol to uniquely allocate VCI values to nodes, and such a protocol mechanism currently does not exist. It is also unclear whether current SAR devices could easily support such a mode of operation. A multicast server is another potential solution to the problem of multicasting over an ATM network. In this scenario, all nodes wanting to transmit onto a multicast group set up a point-to-point connection with an external device known as a multicast server (perhaps better described as a resequencer or serializer). The multicast server, in turn, is connected to all nodes wanting to receive the multicast packets through a point-to-multipoint connection. The multicast server receives packets across the point-to-point connections and then retransmits them across the point-to-multipoint connectionóbut only after ensuring that the packets are serialized (that is, one packet is fully transmitted before the next is sent). In this way, cell interleaving is precluded. An overlaid point-to-multipoint connection is the third potential solution to the problem of multicasting over an ATM network. In this scenario, all nodes in the multicast group establish a point-to-multipoint connection with each other node in the group and, in turn, become leaves in the equivalent connections of all other nodes. Hence, all nodes can both transmit to and receive from all other nodes. This solution requires each node to maintain a connection for each transmitting member of the group, whereas the multicast-server mechanism requires only two connections. This type of connection also requires a registration process for informing the nodes that join a group of the other nodes in the group so that the new nodes can form the point-to-multipoint connection. The other nodes must know about the new node so that they can add the new node to their own point-to-multipoint connections. The multicast-server mechanism is more scalable in terms of connection resources but has the problem of requiring a centralized resequencer, which is both a potential bottleneck and a single point of failure.

ATM supports QoS guarantees comprising traffic contract, traffic shaping, and traffic policing. A traffic contract specifies an envelope that describes the intended data flow. This envelope specifies values for peak bandwidth, average sustained bandwidth, and burst size, among others. When an ATM end system connects to an ATM network, it enters a contract with the network, based on QoS parameters. Traffic shaping is the use of queues to constrain data bursts, limit peak data rate, and smooth jitters so that traffic will fit within the promised envelope. ATM devices are responsible for adhering to the contract by means of traffic shaping. ATM switches can use traffic policing to enforce the contract. The switch can measure the actual traffic flow and compare it against the agreed-upon traffic envelope. If the switch finds that traffic is outside of the agreed-upon parameters, it can set the cell-loss priority (CLP) bit of the offending cells. Setting the CLP bit makes the cell discard eligible, which means that any switch handling the cell is allowed to drop the cell during periods of congestion.