Healthcare industry shifts from ATM to Gigabit Ethernet

May 31, 2000

Healthcare industry shifts from ATM to Gigabit Ethernet Optical networks seen as next broadband solution The recent rise of Gigabit Ethernet (GigE) as a broadband network alternative to asynchronous transfer mode (ATM) has prompted

Healthcare industry shifts from ATM to Gigabit Ethernet

Optical networks seen as next broadband solution

The recent rise of Gigabit Ethernet (GigE) as a broadband network alternative to asynchronous transfer mode (ATM) has prompted numerous debates about the long-term viability of ATM. At issue is whether there is room or need for both technologies or whether ATM will eventually be overshadowed by its less expensive but equally robust rival.

ATM has long been considered the best choice for high-end, mission-critical data-transfer applications, such as sending ultrasound video images over a WAN, and has its highest market penetration in healthcare. But with the adoption of the 802.3ab/D6 GigE IEEE standard last year, ATM is no longer the only broadband game in town. More important, GigE offers several advantages over ATM, not the least of which is considerable cost savings, with most GigE installations costing about one-fifth the price of equivalent ATM networks.

“The consensus across the industry is that ATM as an enterprise technology is essentially dead and will be replaced in the short term by GigE and in the long term by some sort of optical networking,” said Tom Hines, chief technology officer for Force 3, a systems integrator in Crofton, MD. “There is virtually no development going on in the ATM field these days, and two years from now we expect there will be no new purchasing of ATM technologies.”

The U.S. military, a major Force 3 customer, is already making the transition, Hines added. The Navy and the Army are upgrading all of their ATM networks (including medical) to GigE, while the Air Force is staying with ATM for the time being, with an eye on optical networks.

On the industry side, 3Com’s well-publicized exodus from high-end enterprise networking is a strong indication that ATM has a limited life expectancy (HNN 4/19/00). Most of 3Com’s competitors—including Cisco, Marconi, Lucent, Hewlett-Packard, and Nortel—continue to support both ATM and GigE and insist that the two backbones will blissfully coexist for some time.

But they also acknowledge that the LAN ATM market has pretty much dried up and that, with the emergence of GigE and (eventually) 10-GigE, ATM is being relegated primarily to certain WAN applications.

“We think the ATM WAN will be a market force for a significant amount of time, but not for LANs because GigE is much cheaper and has more capability than ATM,” said David Katz, director of business development for 3Com.

Even so, ATM offers certain quality of service (QoS) features that GigE cannot directly address, and some vendors contend that ATM is still the best choice for high-end healthcare applications. For example, ATM guarantees a constant bit rate, which is vital for transmitting real-time video streams. In addition, ATM inherently separates video from voice and data, a critical element of converged networks and voice-over-IP.

“There is no question that GigE sales are growing like crazy, but ATM is increasing as well and continues to be an extremely profitable business for us,” said Tom Pacenta, industry manager for the healthcare marketing group at Marconi Communications. “We see these two coexisting even in the same hospital environment, with ATM for high-end applications and GigE for everything else.”

Hines agrees, noting that deploying a large, redundant, reliable GigE network can be difficult and problematic, while ATM is seen as infinitely scalable. In addition, ATM enables traffic prioritization, another key element for mission-critical applications.

“If what you are trying to do is build a large healthcare delivery system that links several facilities, then ATM still makes sense,” he said. “PACS, for example, gets no benefit from ATM because DICOM works directly with the TCP/IP. But if you need to move some information farther out, then ATM is appropriate. It gives you QoS with multisession capability and allows you to move a lot of data very fast.”

Cisco considers QoS within GigE a nonissue because error reduction, prioritization, and other network service features can be addressed within the TCP/IP, which is inherent to Ethernet and Internet configurations. With the company’s emphasis on supporting the migration to Internet communications, the issue is not whether ATM or GigE is a better technology, but which is most appropriate for meeting customer needs.

“Even in healthcare, the emphasis is on being able to transport data over IP networks and finding the best underlying technology to support that,” said Cecil Christi, manager for solutions marketing in Cisco’s enterprise line of business. “Depending on the need for a certain level of service quality, customers will gravitate either toward GigE (for a larger, faster pipe) or ATM (to specifically prioritize traffic). But still, the best way to address these issues is at the TCP/IP level.”

3Com’s Katz notes that although Ethernet currently does not do some things as well as ATM, the functionality is there. The key is to make the networks smarter and easier to use, and 3Com is developing new GigE products that will offer levels of functionality comparable to ATM.

However, Hines says the best Ethernet technology can do is simulate QoS, because it is not possible to create a direct connection between two end points. The only solution is to overprovision the network, which works but is not very elegant or efficient.

Ultimately, with the emergence of optical networks, the ATM/GigE debate will become moot. Every major vendor is already developing and testing optical switches and backbones, either internally or through mergers and acquisitions.

Cisco recently paid $7 billion for Cerent, a small optical networking company in Petaluma, CA; Nortel just acquired Photonic Technologies, an optical components supplier in Sydney, Australia, for $35.5 million; Lucent is working with two European telecommunications providers to deploy pan-European optical networks, spending hundreds of millions of dollars in the process; and Agilent is partnering with STMicroelectronics to develop and manufacture components for Agilent’s photonic switching platform.

Several up-and-coming companies are putting their eggs in the optical networking basket as well, and some are already targeting healthcare. Yipes, a provider of managed optical IP networks, is building an optical network to link the Palo Alto Medical Foundation campus with satellite clinics and the Internet to facilitate a broad range of advanced medical imaging and telemedicine applications. Several of the switches are already in place, and the fiber-optic link is expected to completed this fall.