Asynchronous Transfer Mode ATM
 


ATM is a telecommunications concept defined by ANSI and ITU (formerly CCITT) standards for carriage of a complete range of user traffic, including voice, data, and video signals," and is designed to unify telecommunication and computer networks. It uses asynchronous time-division multiplexing, and it encodes data into small, fixed-sized cells. This differs from approaches such as the Internet Protocol or Ethernet that use variable sized packets or frames. ATM provides data link layer services that run over a wide range of OSI physical Layer links. ATM has functional similarity with both circuit switched networking and small packet switched networking. It was designed for a network that must handle both traditional high-throughput data traffic (e.g., file transfers), and real-time, low-latency content such as voice and video. ATM uses a connection-oriented model in which a virtual circuit must be established between two endpoints before the actual data exchange begins. ATM is a core protocol used over the SONET/SDH backbone of the public switched telephone network (PSTN) and Integrated Services Digital Network (ISDN), but its use is declining in favour of All IP.


ATM Cell Basics
the designers of ATM utilized small data cells to reduce jitter (delay variance, in this case) in the multiplexing of data streams. Reduction of jitter (and also end-to-end round-trip delays) is particularly important when carrying voice traffic, because the conversion of digitized voice into an analogue audio signal is an inherently real-time process, and to do a good job, the decoder (codec) that does this needs an evenly spaced (in time) stream of data items. If the next data item is not available when it is needed, the codec has no choice but to produce silence or guess — and if the data is late, it is useless, because the time period when it should have been converted to a signal has already passed.

At the time of the design of ATM, 155 Mbit/s Synchronous Digital Hierarchy (SDH) with 135 Mbit/s payload was considered a fast optical network link, and many Plesiochronous Digital Hierarchy (PDH) links in the digital network were considerably slower, ranging from 1.544 to 45 Mbit/s in the USA, and 2 to 34 Mbit/s in Europe.

At this rate, a typical full-length 1500 byte (12000-bit) data packet would take 77.42 µs to transmit. In a lower-speed link, such as a 1.544 Mbit/s T1 line, a 1500 byte packet would take up to 7.8 milliseconds.

A queuing delay induced by several such data packets might exceed the figure of 7.8 ms several times over, in addition to any packet generation delay in the shorter speech packet. This was clearly unacceptable for speech traffic, which needs to have low jitter in the data stream being fed into the codec if it is to produce good-quality sound. A packet voice system can produce this low jitter in a number of ways:

Have a playback buffer between the network and the codec, one large enough to tide the codec over almost all the jitter in the data. This allows smoothing out the jitter, but the delay introduced by passage through the buffer would require echo cancellers even in local networks; this was considered too expensive at the time. Also, it would have increased the delay across the channel, and conversation is difficult over high-delay channels.

Build a system that can inherently provide low jitter (and minimal overall delay) to traffic that needs it.

Operate on a 1:1 user basis (i.e., a dedicated pipe).

The design of ATM aimed for a low-jitter network interface. However, "cells" were introduced into the design to provide short queuing delays while continuing to support datagram traffic. ATM broke up all packets, data, and voice streams into 48-byte chunks, adding a 5-byte routing header to each one so that they could be reassembled later. The choice of 48 bytes was political rather than technical. When the CCITT (now ITU-T) was standardizing ATM, parties from the United States wanted a 64-byte payload because this was felt to be a good compromise in larger payloads optimized for data transmission and shorter payloads optimized for real-time applications like voice; parties from Europe wanted 32-byte payloads because the small size (and therefore short transmission times) simplify voice applications with respect to echo cancellation. Most of the European parties eventually came around to the arguments made by the Americans, but France and a few others held out for a shorter cell length. With 32 bytes, France would have been able to implement an ATM-based voice network with calls from one end of France to the other requiring no echo cancellation. 48 bytes (plus 5 header bytes = 53) was chosen as a compromise between the two sides. 5-byte headers were chosen because it was thought that 10% of the payload was the maximum price to pay for routing information. ATM multiplexed these 53-byte cells instead of packets which reduced worst-case cell contention jitter by a factor of almost 30, reducing the need for echo cancellers.


ATM operates as a channel-based transport layer, using virtual circuits (VCs). This is encompassed in the concept of the Virtual Paths (VP) and Virtual Channels. Every ATM cell has an 8- or 12-bit Virtual Path Identifier (VPI) and 16-bit Virtual Channel Identifier (VCI) pair defined in its header. Together, these identify the virtual circuit used by the connection. The length of the VPI varies according to whether the cell is sent on the user-network interface (on the edge of the network), or if it is sent on the network-network interface (inside the network).

As these cells traverse an ATM network, switching takes place by changing the VPI/VCI values (label swapping). Although the VPI/VCI values are not necessarily consistent from one end of the connection to the other, the concept of a circuit is consistent (unlike IP, where any given packet could get to its destination by a different route than the others).

Another advantage of the use of virtual circuits comes with the ability to use them as a multiplexing layer, allowing different services (such as voice, Frame Relay, n* 64 channels, IP). The VPI is useful for reducing the switching table of some virtual circuits which have common paths.


Types of virtual circuits and paths
ATM can build virtual circuits and virtual paths either statically or dynamically. Static circuits (permanent virtual circuits or PVCs) or paths (permanent virtual paths or PVPs) require that the circuit is composed of a series of segments, one for each pair of interfaces through which it passes.

PVPs and PVCs, though conceptually simple, require significant effort in large networks. They also do not support the re-routing of service in the event of a failure. Dynamically built PVPs (soft PVPs or SPVPs) and PVCs (soft PVCs or SPVCs), in contrast, are built by specifying the characteristics of the circuit (the service "contract") and the two end points.

Finally, ATM networks create and remove switched virtual circuits (SVCs) on demand when requested by an end piece of equipment. One application for SVCs is to carry individual telephone calls when a network of telephone switches are inter-connected using ATM. SVCs were also used in attempts to replace local area networks with ATM.
Virtual circuit routing

Most ATM networks supporting SPVPs, SPVCs, and SVCs use the Private Network Node Interface or Private Network-to-Network Interface (PNNI) protocol. PNNI uses the same shortest-path-first algorithm used by OSPF and IS-IS to route IP packets to share topology information between switches and select a route through a network. PNNI also includes a very powerful summarization mechanism to allow construction of very large networks, as well as a call admission control (CAC) algorithm which determines the availability of sufficient bandwidth on a proposed route through a network in order to satisfy the service requirements of a VC or VP.
Call admission and connection establishment

A network must establish a connection before two parties can send cells to each other. In ATM this is called a virtual circuit (VC). It can be a permanent virtual circuit (PVC), which is created administratively on the end points, or a switched virtual circuit (SVC), which is created as needed by the communicating parties. SVC creation is managed by signaling, in which the requesting party indicates the address of the receiving party, the type of service requested, and whatever traffic parameters may be applicable to the selected service. "Call admission" is then performed by the network to confirm that the requested resources are available and that a route exists for the connection.
Reference model

ATM defines three layers:

  • ATM Adaptation Layer (AAL) and
  • ATM Layer correspond roughly to the OSI Data Link Layer
  • Physical Layer, equivalent to OSI Physical Layer

Structure of an ATM cell

An ATM cell consists of a 5-byte header and a 48-byte payload. The payload size of 48 bytes was chosen as described above ("Why cells?").

ATM defines two different cell formats: UNI (User-Network Interface) and NNI (Network-Network Interface). Most ATM links use UNI cell format.

Diagram of the UNI ATM Cell

7     4 3     0
GFC VPI
VPI VCI
VCI
VCI PT CLP
HEC


Payload and padding if necessary (48 bytes)
 

Diagram of the NNI ATM Cell

7     4 3     0
VPI
VPI VCI
VCI
VCI PT CLP
HEC


Payload and padding if necessary (48 bytes)
 

GFC = Generic Flow Control (4 bits) (default: 4-zero bits)
VPI = Virtual Path Identifier (8 bits UNI) or (12 bits NNI)
VCI = Virtual Channel identifier (16 bits)
PT = Payload Type (3 bits)
CLP = Cell Loss Priority (1-bit)
HEC = Header Error Control (8-bit CRC, polynomial = X8 + X2 + X + 1)

ATM uses the PT field to designate various special kinds of cells for operations, administration and management (OAM) purposes, and to delineate packet boundaries in some AALs.

Several ATM link protocols use the HEC field to drive a CRC-based framing algorithm, which allows locating the ATM cells with no overhead beyond what is otherwise needed for header protection. The 8-bit CRC is used to correct single-bit header errors and detect multi-bit header errors. When multi-bit header errors are detected, the current and subsequent cells are dropped until a cell with no header errors is found.

A UNI cell reserves the GFC field for a local flow control/submultiplexing system between users. This was intended to allow several terminals to share a single network connection, in the same way that two Integrated Services Digital Network (ISDN) phones can share a single basic rate ISDN connection. All four GFC bits must be zero by default.

The NNI cell format replicates the UNI format almost exactly, except that the 4-bit GFC field is re-allocated to the VPI field, extending the VPI to 12 bits. Thus, a single NNI ATM interconnection is capable of addressing almost 212 VPs of up to almost 216 VCs each (in practice some of the VP and VC numbers are reserved).
 


ATM is a high-speed networking standard designed to support both voice and data communications. ATM is normally utilized by Internet service providers on their private long-distance networks. ATM operates at the data link layer (Layer 2 in the OSI model) over either fiber or twisted-pair cable.

ATM differs from more common data link technologies like Ethernet in several ways. For example, ATM utilizes no routing. Hardware devices known as ATM switches establish point-to-point connections between endpoints and data flows directly from source to destination. Additionally, instead of using variable-length packets as Ethernet does, ATM utilizes fixed-sized cells. ATM cells are 53 bytes in length, that includes 48 bytes of data and five (5) bytes of header information.

The performance of ATM is often expressed in the form of OC (Optical Carrier) levels, written as "OC-xxx." Performance levels as high as 10 Gbps (OC-192) are technically feasible with ATM. More common performance levels for ATM are 155 Mbps (OC-3) and 622 Mbps (OC-12).

ATM technology is designed to improve utilization and quality of service (QoS) on high-traffic networks. Without routing and with fixed-size cells, networks can much more easily manage bandwidth under ATM than under Ethernet, for example. The high cost of ATM relative to Ethernet is one factor that has limited its adoption to backbone and other high-performance, specialized networks.