City Finds ATM PDQ, Implements ASAP

Oceanside, Calif., says goodbye to Ethernet, hello to ATM.

by / October 31, 1999
Sometimes, one head is better than two. Or even three. This backward aphorism may have crossed the mind of Michael Sherwood, information technologies manager of Oceanside, Calif., when he thought of adding video-conferencing capabilities to the city's already existing data and telephone networks. This dilemma led him to the idea of turning to Asynchronous Transfer Mode (ATM) to integrate voice, video and data delivery to city employees onto one network.

Sherwood said, according to his research, that the city is one of the nation's first -- if not the first -- to take ATM all the way to users' desktops.

"This allows us to consolidate," said Sherwood. "We don't need people to just do phones, or just data. That's not a good use of our resources. ATM is not as difficult as people make it sound. Our goal is to let other government agencies know that ATM works. We want them to develop the technology and use it."

ATM has long been a solid backbone, but taking ATM to the desktop is unusual, said Steven Taylor, president of Distributed Networking Associates and the publisher/editor in chief of Webtorials.Com.

"What the city is doing is pretty much what the vision for ATM local area networks was," said Taylor, who added that he has not heard of other municipalities or local governments taking ATM to the desktop. "ATM to the desktop usually implies multimedia to the desktop."

Desktop Debut

Oceanside's first large deployment of ATM into a municipal building was Aug. 30 in the city's new Public Safety Facility, which houses the Police Department and 911 call center, and where approximately 400 PCs in the Police Department have been networked via ATM.

Sherwood said voice, video and data traffic for the building run over the new ATM network, and all phones are connected straight to desktop PCs.

"The telephone traffic on the first day was 8,500 to 9,000 calls, and we had no crashes," said Ron Jack, the city's director of Administrative Services.

In addition, selected PCs have desktop video-conferencing capability. The facility is outfitted with more than 100 video cameras monitoring indoor jail facilities and the exterior of the building. Police personnel can use those cameras as extra eyes, providing realtime video on their PCs.

The new facility is the first phase of the ATM rollout. Other phases include the city's libraries, the operations center for water utilities and community services, the civic center and other public-resource entities.

"It's really exceeded my expectations,"said Jack. "It's such a good foundation for the organization to build on. For us it made sense, because it cut our costs dramatically. Whatever decisions we make now should serve as smart-money decisions for the long term."

Marlis Humphrey, president of the ATM Forum, an organization formed in 1991, said that ATM, while offering many benefits, is not for all cities.

"If you have a simple, static network, then ATM is probably not the way to go,' she said. "ATM works best in a multiprotocol environment."

From Drawing Board to Reality

The ATM switchover had been in the making for three years. While Sherwood estimated the cost of the rollout to be nearly $2.5 million, with hardware costs accounting for roughly $500,000 of the total expenditures, city IT staff laid out a plan to make the switchover as simple as possible.

The network's design was followed by bidding out recabling city buildings with fiber optics. Looking for equipment that could take advantage of ATM's cell-switching technology preceded a decision on hardware specifications and vendors.

The changeover caused no problems to the city's normal operating budget, and Sherwood said his department did not have to ask for additional money or special allocations to fund the project. But due to the project's nature, the IT division circumvented the ubiquitous request-for-proposals (RFP) process.

"There were no other vendors out there that could do exactly what we wanted, so we were basically limited to one vendor for hardware and one vendor for the phone. That eliminated the RFP process because there was no one else out there doing this," he said. "There were no other examples to go off of as far as to this magnitude of laying ATM out to the desktop -- as far as other municipalities were willing to share."

Despite dodging the bureaucratic red tape, the IT division still relied on some time-honored principles to keep the deployment on track.

"You cannot undertake a project of this magnitude unless you have some kind of user support, or a proven track record with your users that you've been successful on previous projects," he cautioned.

Fear of the Unknown

Sherwood is convinced ATM is the best technology for networks, offering as evidence ATM's redundant-mesh design, high end-to-end fault tolerance, lack of constraints and bottlenecks in information delivery, ease of management and scalability. In fact, he said, adding more users increases the network's bandwidth.

So why is Oceanside the first city to take ATM to the desktop?

"The early perceptions of ATM were that it was big bandwidth: It was only there to solve bandwidth problems and it would not apply to small cities," said the ATM Forum's Humphrey, adding that the initial high cost was also a factor. "As far as scalability into the future and its ability to guarantee a high level of service to users, ATM is an insurance policy in this world of change and innovation."

"People make ATM sound a lot harder than it is, which then makes managers in IT shy away from it," said Sherwood. "They go status quo and refuse to look at all the benefits that ATM can offer. They would rather stay with their current technology because they know it. It's simple. It may not be the best, but they are sort of complacent and they don't want to move."

Additional information is available by contacting Michael Sherwood, Information Technologies manager, Oceanside, Calif., 760/435-3808; or Ron Jack, director of Administrative Services, Oceanside, Calif., 760/966-4601. *

Oceanside's Palm Court and Oceanside Civic Center, which houses administrative offices and City Hall, the City Council Chambers and the mayor's office.