Solutions to Network Traffic Jams Catching On

nferris@govexec.com

There's a paradox at work in today's communications networks. On the one hand, networks are better, faster and less expensive than ever before. On the other hand, networks are drawing complaints from workers who need more connectivity and speed to do their jobs.

Networks that performed well just a few years ago are being overwhelmed by new users and new kinds of "bandwidth hogs," in the colorful industry phrase. For example, widespread Internet (and specifically World Wide Web) use means graphics moving across the wires. Graphics are big, and it takes only a few to slow down your network.

Also, today's software gobbles up capacity. If you store or transmit this article in Microsoft Word format, the file will be about 23,000 bytes long. A byte is supposed to equal one character (letter, number or space), but the text consists of only 4,500 characters. The unaccounted-for 18,000 characters are devoted to formatting instructions and other unseen elements. This file inflation can affect the network.

A third reason for network traffic jams is simply more traffic. Almost every federal employee who works at a desk soon will have a networked computer and an electronic mail address. The software setup requires them to communicate regularly with other computers.

Fortunately, the technology to speed up your agency's communications is here. And it's getting less expensive. But the increase in network demand is more than offsetting price cuts, so that the typical office or agency is spending more on networks each year. According to market researchers at INPUT's Federal Division in Vienna, Va., the federal government will spend about $5.4 billion on communications this fiscal year. This spending is growing at an annual rate of 4 percent, while overall information technology spending is growing slightly faster.

It takes a federal agency at least five years to plan and install a major communications network, according to planners at the Veterans Affairs Department, Agriculture Department and other agencies. During this period, new network technologies will be introduced. What's an agency to do?

Stay flexible, say agency officials. For example, VA's major data network, the Integrated Data Communications Utility, has provided users with conventional packet-switched links since its inception in the late 1980s. In 1996, VA added the newer and faster frame relay service, which beefed up the network's ability to handle heavy-duty traffic such as X-rays and other medical images, plus Internet access.

VA is testing the hottest new high-speed network technology, asynchronous transfer mode (ATM), and it has added links and services as needed. Meanwhile, the agency is planning its next-generation network, the Integrated Communications Environment for the Turn of the Century.

Treasury is set to upgrade to an ATM "super backbone" for integrated data, voice and video services in 1998, with an intermediate upgrade from packet-switching this year. Treasury also has become the official provider of governmentwide electronic mail services, working with the General Services Administration.

For those who aren't technical managers, the new networking technologies are a mishmash of acronyms. Besides ATM, there's Integrated Services Digital Network (ISDN), which speeds up phone lines by making them digital. For large agencies, ISDN service is a perennial also ran, but it is catching on. Like ISDN, Switched Data Service is provided by phone companies to speed data transmission.

The new Defense Information Systems Network will have a Synchronous Optical Network, or Sonet, optical fiber backbone to be built by AT&T. Other AT&T customers will use the same pipelines. Eventually the backbone will carry 2.4 billion bits of data per second. Even for agency networks, fiber cabling is becoming common. It's more secure and capable of carrying heavy traffic. Fiber Distributed Data Interface (FDDI) networks are used both in high-capacity backbones and to upgrade ordinary Ethernet in overworked local networks.

TCP/IP is the Internet's lingua franca, a pair of software protocols that enable two computers to communicate. NASA programs are using TCP/IP increasingly. As a consequence, the space agency is phasing out elements of its packet-switched network and is encouraging use of TCP/IP instead. Likewise, the Agriculture Department will use only the Internet Protocol in its wide area network and will require IP in all USDA local area networks (LANs) by 2002.

What makes communications so confusing is the complexity of trying to align a series of complicated devices.

Phone systems were designed to carry sounds, and data networks were designed to carry streams of data bits between computers. Cable television is a third type of information transmission system. But today you can transmit both sound and video over the Internet. Meanwhile, cable providers are trying to compete with telephone companies and Internet access companies. And the telephone companies are scrambling to become all-purpose information highways.

The devices at each end of a transmission-whether they are telephones, computers, or other kinds of gear-must use the same languages and protocols. Even more importantly, the switches, hubs, routers and other intermediary devices must get the information they need to keep the link open.

Different data networks use different addressing schemes for devices and for routing packets of information. Phone-system-based networks are more consistent, but the trade-off can be less flexibility and control.

In view of the critical role communications plays a critical role in programs today, even non-technical managers need to understand network fundamentals and ask smart questions.

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