For Panama canal, upgrade to ATM net ensures smooth sailing

The Panama Canal has never been about doing things on a small scale, and its network is no exception.

With the transition from U.S. control of the canal to Panamanian authority looming at year-end, the Panama Canal Commission has spent more than $1.3 million on equipment to make its network more efficient and robust. The upgrade, much of which was installed about 18 months ago, includes nine carrier-grade ATM switches from FORE Systems to carry the organization's voice, data and video traffic over the same infrastructure.

Although ATM hasn't been as popular as Ethernet technologies in many enterprise campuses, it fit the bill for an organization that made convergence a priority.

"We found that ATM was the most promising technology, based on the fact that it could combine all three kinds of traffic on a single network," says Jorge Ruiz, information management engineer for the commission.

The organization expects many people to leave or retire once the canal is transferred out of U.S. hands on Dec. 31, in accordance with the Panama Canal Treaty, signed in 1977. "Bringing all of our services into a single network would allow us to have fewer people do the same work," Ruiz says.

Voice and data convergence was the first step of the upgrade. The commission connected its seven Nortel Networks PBXs, which support 10,000 phone lines along the 50-mile length of the canal, to the ATM switches. Much of the voice traffic still lies outside the ATM network, but it is being migrated to ATM, Ruiz says. The voice network interfaces with the public switched telephone network at two points, via 16 E-1 links at the northern end of the canal and two E-1 links at the southern end.

On the data side, the organization migrated from token ring to Ethernet and Fast Ethernet in order to relieve some congestion and get away from token ring's high cost, Ruiz says. The commission spent $600,000 to purchase 12 Cisco Catalyst 5500 switches, which are loaded with Fast Ethernet ports, to hook up its 3,000 PCs. The switches in turn link to the ATM core switches.

The next step will be converging the video traffic. The commission is testing some options using Motion JPEG coder/decoders and MPEG-2 coder/decoders. The idea is to connect the 30 or so cameras watching the ships along the canal into the ATM network. There are also about 120 surveillance cameras on the campus that would be hooked in, Ruiz says.

The commission runs a marine traffic control system on the network, which uses feeds from global positioning system satellites to regulate ship traffic on the canal. By monitoring the ships' positions, the commission can ensure the traffic flow is smooth, forecast traffic loads and plan canal maintenance. Other applications include accounting, inventory and project management.

Ruiz says the commission was looking for carrier-grade ATM equipment for its network core because of the size and importance of the network. With so much voice traffic, the commission needed to work with a vendor that was familiar with carrier requirements. Instead of using FORE's enterprise switches, it bought FORE's TNX 1100 switches.

Moving to ATM can be difficult because of its complexity, and Ruiz's primary advice to potential ATM users is to learn about the technology in advance.

"You need to invest a considerable amount in training and planning for the project to be successful," he says.

The Panama Canal had plenty of technical assistance from Cisco and FORE, which was a great help, Ruiz says.

In the end, though, Ruiz insists that the commission has simplified its network. One IT team can now see what's happening with all the different types of traffic because it is all running over the same infrastructure.

"More people should feel that ATM might be helpful," Ruiz says.

This story, "For Panama canal, upgrade to ATM net ensures smooth sailing" was originally published by Network World.

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