Communications Move Into Fast Lane

November 2000
By Christian B. Sheehy

Existing technology coupled with software product delivers improved networking capabilities.

As businesses increasingly turn to visual methods of interaction, the demand for software programs that support multiple connectivity requirements has fueled growing technological research. The ability to tap the virtually limitless resources of voice, video and data services for use in real-time collaborative communications between companies has attracted interest in the ways these companies can maximize their Internet capabilities.

To bring advanced systems versatility to the workplace, TeraGlobal Communications, a San Diego research organization specializing in software solutions, offers a broad answer to the complexities often associated with interactive business networking. “What we have tried to achieve with the TeraMedia solution is a blending of voice, video, and data applications in such a way that two or more people can communicate in a seamless, real-time fashion,” Robert Welty, vice president of sales for TeraGlobal, states. “With the creation of this secure and scalable network, we can now deliver quality of service to boardroom, desktop, and classroom systems at the same time, any time.”

Using asynchronous transfer mode (ATM) technology in connection with a standard desktop computer, the TeraMedia solution eliminates the packet latency often experienced at network nodes. Common system routers slow down the transfer of information packets at the nodule points that serve as bridges linking a network’s signal pathways. Internet protocol routers must first process any incoming information to determine the proper direction the data should take. The resulting delay caused by this recognition procedure prevents the seamless presentation of the particular application at the receiving end of a communication.

Prior to ATM technology, which introduced router and switching capabilities at the Joint Warrior Interoperability Demonstration in 1994, gateways such as the Internet and local area network-based Ethernets were hampered by both time and space constraints. Limitations on pipe bandwidth resulted in periods of greater latency depending on the number of subscribers and the amount of information traveling across a given network. Since the pipes were not exclusively controlled by one user at any given time, more data than was intended could enter a network pathway as the number of people online increased. This information overload created a clog in network service efficiency that translated into increasing delays in data transfer. 

“Removing the latency and performance barriers inherent in all network systems is the primary objective of our technology,” Welty remarks. “Through the use of high-performance processors on the desktop, we are able to mix voice, video, and data services to create a more seamless flow of information.” The TeraMedia solution delivers video applications at 30 frames per second with synchronized audio to one or more subscribers regardless of relative time or location.

ATM technology decreases the size of the data packets that store the information tidbits needed to re-create a whole presentation at the receiving end of a transmission. “Through the more efficient use of bandwidth, we can scale to more users on a given network infrastructure,” Grant K. Holcomb, TeraGlobal’s chief technology officer, explains. “Because of higher compression ratios of audio and video in real-time, we are able to consume less bandwidth, allowing customers to put more users simultaneously on a given network.” 

Under the unified computing and communications architecture (UCCA), multiple classes of service, such as voice, video and data, can run over a single network infrastructure. Working in combination with the UCCA, the network services framework enables a network to carry real-time service regardless of the number of users, system hardware or service provider. Holcomb notes that the UCCA gives quality of service to Internet protocol through the use of ATM technology as a common datalink layer. “Additionally, this approach eliminates the distinction between local and wide area networks, allowing for equal operability regardless of physical distances,” he adds.

Dynamic interoperability is a key focus of TeraMedia research. One of the principal programs within the system is TeraMedia Matinee. Designed as a universal scripting language for building presentations, Matinee brings visual graphic capabilities to the conference room, allowing for advanced real-time data displays over a network. “The idea is to enable people to enhance their productivity by integrating audio, video, and other collaborative applications,” Holcomb remarks. “Using a powerful rendering and animation engine, Matinee-produced presentations can be anything from a simple slide show to network-based simulations.”

Consumer interest in TeraMedia has grown rapidly as the solution’s applicability to more business needs has increased. “Competition between small- to medium-sized manufacturers has become a major part of the economic backbone of the United States,” John Irion, a representative for the South Carolina Manufacturers Extension Partnership, Columbia, notes. “These manufacturing companies depend on the ability to interact with one another on a large scale, in various different mediums.” One of TeraMedia’s roles has been to open up the variety of communications capabilities needed for successful commercial business operations.

User training is an integral part of Matinee and the assessment portion of TeraMedia. Various levels of training such as CD, online or face-to-face are offered to satisfy the different business needs. This assessment tool allows session moderators to survey a group’s skills and knowledge, receive instant feedback, conduct examinations, and achieve a consensus in an automated real-time environment. “Along with formatted reports of the session results, TeraMedia provides a means of measuring the effectiveness, value and quality of any content distributed through the network,” Holcomb points out.

“Without having to hire more people to help us stay connected to other manufacturers, TeraMedia gives us the ability to interface with many more companies than was previously possible within a given period of time,” Irion comments. “The ultimate solution is integrating TeraMedia’s capabilities with our customers so that we don’t have to send a consultant on a 3-hour drive to help a client with a 5-minute fix.”

Within the TeraMedia infrastructure, training and messaging services add an element of interactive user friendliness to the potentially intimidating number of options. The small message service overcomes the common problems associated with not being alerted to important electronic messages as they arrive. Regardless of the TeraMedia program engaged, any incoming message is posted automatically on the recipient’s screen. Additionally, the capability exists to send an immediate reply to people confirmed to be online without interrupting service to the program currently in use.

The need for enhanced interactive data transmission capabilities was felt strongly during the Gulf War. Fighting units experienced periods of information delay that, in some cases, had a critical effect on their operational success and timing. Legacy equipment was at times outdated when compared with the demands of certain tactical maneuvers. “Data download latency was acute,” Holcomb admits. “Without having to interoperate with Legacy, a nonblocking ATM switch can have any number of multipoint sessions and only present 10 microseconds of latency.”

The threshold of human perception regarding network router latency is around 30 frames per second, or 200 milliseconds. Anything above this number is seen as a delay in the unbroken reception of voice, video or data applications. In combination with ATM technology, the TeraMedia solution can deliver less than 150 milliseconds of latency across upwards of 10 ATM switches. “By removing the elements that cause network data path delays such as routers, bridges, multipoint control units or inverse multiplexors, we can put ATM switching at every network end-point, virtually eliminating any perceivable amount of information transfer hesitation.”

The advantage of having ATM cells of equal size within a network infrastructure is the marked increase in tasking scalability, allowing more versatility at an average desktop terminal. Applications such as video, audio, data stream and World Wide Web page protocol are all deliverable with minimum interruption. “Using the UCCA, we are able to break down the giant maximum transfer units used by local area Ethernets into a larger number of smaller, more secure ones that allow for greater user control while supporting a simultaneous mix of information services,” Holcomb explains. TeraMedia technology has standardized packet size and increased the available data pathways to achieve a more efficient and predictable method of network-based information transportation, he adds.

Since the digitization of computer software, the transmission of greater amounts of data at higher speeds and with greater precision has been realized. The equalization of individual data frame sizes and the assignment of given values to these frames represented the development of an entirely new language with which computers could connect. “Unlike the Internet, which is tied to a specific protocol, ATM as a common datalink layer allows any communications protocol to be used at the same time,” Holcomb remarks.

By providing its own datalink layer, ATM technology has enabled TeraMedia to offer a network services framework that can accommodate outside protocols such as frame-relay, modem, integrated services digital network and Ethernet local area networks. Communications protocol packets are divided into frames within the datalink layer of a network and transmitted. Once the frames are received, the data packets are pulled out so that the information can be displayed.

“The beauty of ATM is that, unlike frame relay, modems, ISDN [integrated services digital network], or Ethernets, it provides more precise control of the timing of data delivery,” Holcomb explains. “The result is that, without having to add components, you can standardize a network at a lower layer and raise the quality of service at the same time.”

A main goal in the development of TeraMedia has been finding ways to offer enhanced security and control guarantees in network two-way communications. As the connection reliability of most Web-based systems remains largely data dependent, trends in network research have turned toward making pathways more resistant to overcrowding. Incomplete or delayed data transfer due to public access overloads has raised the demand for solutions like TeraMedia that bring a greater degree of certainty to network communications.

Taking advantage of ATM technology, TeraMedia researchers are working toward guaranteeing every subscriber a minimum data path throughout a given network. “We are trying to go one step better than the ‘first come, first served’ mentality that still controls today’s network traffic,” Holcomb remarks. “Enabling people to essentially own the data path they are using, without fear of interruption from other subscribers, is one of our primary objectives.”

In a critical wartime scenario, where the success of an operation is directly reliant on up-to-the-second information, knowing that the necessary data will reach its destination both in its correct form and in a timely manner without worrying about it should be automatic, he adds.

While making data pathways more exclusive to the user, TeraMedia developers also are interested in maintaining optimal service accessibility within a closed-circuit environment. ATM is also applicable to this situation. For the majority of voice, video or data applications over Ethernet, the large size of the frame received at a given end-point requires processing time to find any possible corruption that may have occurred en route. This time increases as more users subscribe to a network because of congestion at routing nodes. With ATM, all of this potential latency is eliminated through the use of compressed individual user pathways that are immediately identifiable to the receiving server.

“The only way of ensuring true convergence of information at multiple destinations so that everyone is seeing the same thing at the same time is through precision control of your packet deliveries,” Holcomb emphasizes. “Successful collaborations do not happen without the ability to mix services in real time. ATM enables this capability and also allows you to mix multiple services without sacrificing quality.”

Since, in theory, ATM technology could potentially save network subscribers large amounts of time online, the cost savings could likewise be noticeable. Another area where time and cost savings can be realized using TeraMedia and ATM is with available bandwidth. The flexibility of ATM cells allows for the compression and decompression of their data-carrying capacity. Without increasing bandwidth, more or less information can be transferred in the same amount of virtual space.

As research continues into ways to improve the applicability of TeraMedia within the communications technology arena, product marketability to both the commercial and residential sectors should likewise increase. According to Welty, TeraGlobal Communications is currently focusing on standardizing and expanding the scope of TeraMedia to include a broader user base and additional collaborative applications.