Blame it on the old MAN

If you’re having trouble scoring a 19-Megabit pipe from your data communications service provider, don’t blame the carrier. Blame the MAN.

The metro area network (that’s the MAN in question) could be the source of your pain. This collection of wires and boxes connects your local access loop to your service provider’s network core and, frankly, it’s a tired old thing, built on ancient technology and widely considered to be as annoying a bottleneck as your first kidney stone.

But not to worry, because the MAN is due for a change. Network equipment makers are building new technology for this fussy data path – new switches that understand improved protocols. They should provide enterprise users more granular service, such as that 19-Megabit pipe you’re pining for.

The MAN’s main problem with the world is age. It’s built, for the most part, out of SONET bits that did a fantastic job transporting voice traffic to and fro over the years. But in this age of data and IP, many believe SONET isn’t up to snuff. The technology has limits that hinder data communications, said Neil Wotherspoon, a spokesman with Agilent Technologies Inc., a diagnostic tool maker in Palo Alto, Calif.

“It doesn’t cope very well with the bursty nature of data,” he said. The traditional telecom network is based on fixed-sized pipes built especially for voice. Data travelling within these wires is broken down into smaller channels of lesser speeds with which the data traffic doesn’t always agree.

Since the Internet really took off circa 1995, data traffic has come to exceed voice traffic, Wotherspoon said. And if the MAN had trouble in the mid-’90s with the amount of data it was asked to carry back then, imagine what the future has in store: voice over IP, whereby even good ol’ voice traffic acts an awful lot like data.

As it’s built for voice and not data transmission, the MAN could be the reason why you’ve never been completely satisfied with your service provider.

Wotherspoon described an enterprise looking for a 20-Megabit data pipe: “If you map that into SONET, you’re either faced with paying for multiple 1.5 Megabit pipes if you’re lucky, or it gets carried as a DS3, which runs at 45 Megabits,” he said. “So you end up paying for the 45-Megabit pipe.”

In other words, an enterprise client could end up paying for more bandwidth than necessary. It suggests that carriers’ “networks are inefficient,” Wotherspoon said, but it also suggests the MAN is keeping you down.

Network gear manufacturers are all over this problem with new boxes and line cards designed to break the MAN’s stranglehold on fast-flowing data. Mind you, they’re also interested because the MAN represents the next Mecca in equipment sales, said Stephen Beamish, director of market development with Tropic Networks Inc., a young optical device builder in Ottawa.

“You’ll hear that [carriers are] cutting back on capital expenditures,” he said. “But if you look, they’re focused on the metro.…The first stage you can see the recovery is when a series of RFPs (requests for proposal) come out from the tier-one carriers. Those are already out, which is good news for us.”

Tropic figures the best way to improve the MAN’s chances is to make it see the light. Tropic’s product, the TRX-24000, helps port the popular IP-style protocols (variations on the Ethernet theme) onto SONET, but unlike other devices, Tropic’s eschews the optical-electrical-optical (OEO) conversion that some say is necessary for channel grooming and control. The TRX-24000 offers the control of DWDM on OEO and the low cost of sending traffic point-to-point via all-“O.”

“What we’ve done is combine the best of both worlds,” said Ed Dziadzio, Tropic’s director of product marketing. “Because of the optical technology we have we can take these signals from the ADM (add-drop multiplexer) in a packed mode, carry that signal across the metro or multiple rings back to the ADM on the other side all within the optical realm, but with full management.”

Not all parties have the same perspective on the MAN’s situation. Consider Cisco Systems Inc., which advocates improving, not eliminating the SONET infrastructure.

Carriers are fond of the technology because it “has been in the ground for 30 years,” said Jared Headley, San Jose, Calif.-based senior manager, product marketing with Cisco during the SUPERCOMM show held in Atlanta earlier this month. “That’s what carriers care about, know and understand.”

So, “instead of ripping that (SONET) network out, especially in today’s economy, what you really want to do is add Gigabit Ethernet line cards,” he said. “That’s what we do with Cisco’s products, the ONS 15454 that Cisco has for next generation SONET/SDH services. We’re seeing a huge demand for that. It delivers those fractional services and allows [carriers] to transport signals back over their traditional OC-48 SONET ring.”

Headley’s “huge demand” does not include one of Canada’s carriers, however. Aliant Telecom Inc., a division of Aliant Inc. and the overarching owner of Atlantic Canada’s local telcos (including NBtel and MTT) is not particularly interested in the MAN. According to company spokeswoman Lynn Coveyduck, Aliant is all about long-haul carriage these days.

“We are increasing our capacity for long-haul traffic. We’re expecting to quadruple our capacity in order to get traffic in and out. We expect we will probably need it in six to eight months time. That build will keep us going for the next year or so.”

As for the MAN bottleneck, Coveyduck said it’s not a problem for Aliant.

“We haven’t had a bottleneck in any area of our network. We don’t have too much or too little. It’s a question of monitoring our growth trends and planning our network build and expansion along with those.”

But even if Aliant is sitting pretty with its SONET equipment, Headley suggested that it wouldn’t be long before the company goes looking for help with the MAN. He said a J.P. Morgan study proves that carriers like Aliant have been neglecting the MAN: for every dollar spent in the backbone, carriers generally spend just five cents in the metro.