Mass Communication

A fiber-optic carrier uses NeXTSTEP to build software for the next generation of telecommunications

by Eliot Bergson

Corporate developers are finding out that building applications with NeXTSTEP leads to unexpected changes and opportu-nities in the very basics of business. For Vince Jordan and the 34 programmers at Williams Telecommunications (WilTel) in The Woodlands, Texas, software development could lead to changes big enough to launch them and the rest of us into the next generation of telecommunications.

Jordan's group is developing software and protocols for an Asynchronous Transfer Mode (ATM) network, a brand-new switching technology that will enable users to send data and communicate in real time at presently unheard-of speeds over an 11,000-mile fiber-optic cable network. When the system is installed on a bank of NeXT machines at WilTel's control center in Tulsa, Oklahoma, customers will also be able to receive "knowledge engineered" alarms and on-line video help. It looks like the future, all right.

Unconventional outlook
Jordan originally thought the project would rely on IBM RS/6000s. "I was reading one of IBM's promo brochures," the 35-year-old director of information systems says, "and it talked about NeXTSTEP. I said, I want to see this!' " So he rode his motorcycle up to a demo in Austin, but instead of seeing NeXTSTEP on RS/6000s, he played on a NeXT for two days and sped back to Houston. "I told my rep I had to have NeXTSTEP, but of course he couldn't deliver," Jordan recalls. In the end, he bought 100 NeXT machines and one RS/6000 as a "way of saying thanks."

With his shoulder-length hair and scruffy beard, Jordan looks more like a hacker than an IS director, but being unconventional is just his particular way of getting things done. "The only hardware I really care about is my bike," he says with a smile. "With computers, I care about what's inside." He took the same view when hiring developers: He interviewed over 100 before settling on 34 of the best Smalltalk and Objective-C hackers in the business, from as far away as India, China, and Poland. "I'm running the U.N. of software development," he says.

Jordan's team developed the ATM network management simulator and then gave the code to the switch manufacturer for testing the equipment. When the hardware is in place, Jordan explains, he'll also be able to test the prototype against the same parameters used in manufacturing. "This is what NeXTSTEP is all about," he says. "It allows an approach to building software that's completely unencumbered by previous corporate strategies."

Jordan likewise felt unencumbered about choosing the new Auspex NS 5500 UNIX file server as his local-area NFS server and backup device. The Auspex uses "hot-pluggable" technology: All data is disk-striped (written and read by many heads, each with its own file processor, across several drives simultaneously) and automatically mirrored. If a drive fails, the data switches to its mirrored location, allowing the user to continue working. Technicians are alerted to pull the drive and replace it with a new one, which is automatically formatted, rebuilt, and used again as the data source all without having to shut down the machine.

The Auspex had one drawback until Jordan got to it, though: It didn't support NetInfo. So while Auspex began work on a NetInfo port, Jordan hacked out a workaround and again gave the code to the manufacturer. Since then, Auspex has sold machines to other major NeXT customers, including Bozell, Jacobs, Kenyon, and Eckhardt; Phibro Energy; and SBC/OC Services. WilTel has also bought another NS 5500 as the backbone for its ATM network control center.

Moving gigabits
Just as WilTel's development process has helped streamline switch manufacturing and create a viable NeXT market for Auspex, so will it change the future of the telecommunications industry by allowing customers to push far more data over dedicated lines.

Private-line carriers currently sell the right to transmit across dedicated telephone wires or fiber-optic cables; AT&T, Sprint, and MCI all have private line divisions, which charge each customer for an entire line, no matter how often or how much it's used. The breakup of Ma Bell also allowed smaller firms like WilTel to build and support transmission networks. WilTel's customers now push through 45Mbits per second on a DS3 channel (a basic unit of fiber-optic capacity), a figure that will increase to 1.2Gbits per second on an improved OC3 channel in 1993.

ATM switches will offer a quantum leap in throughput, handling the equivalent of 48 OC3 channels over 50Gbits of data per second. And each of the 48 switch fabrics can be configured for 4097 circuits, allowing that many customers to share the switch at the same time. "Today I can give you a DS3 to communicate between San Francisco and New York," Jordan says. "It's yours, whether you fill it or not. With the ATM switching technology, I can take that DS3, and because of the virtual switch technology, share that DS3 among many users."

This will radically change the business of private-line carriers. Customers have traditionally paid for access to an entire channel; they owned the bandwidth. With ATM, Jordan explains, customers will pay for the right to transfer across a switch when they need to. Private-line carriers will need to build a much greater installed base, but ATM's speed could easily establish it as a new standard.

Feature creep
Jordan's team has had to walk a fine line between offering innovative software and overloading the end user. Because NeXTSTEP is such a simple development tool, programmers have to stop themselves from putting too much functionality in the software. "I keep listening to customers, then go to my people and ask if we can do this or that," says Jordan. "They don't say 'no' often but we have to watch out for 'feature creep' too much functionality. We want to break down barriers here, not construct more."

WilTel's customer software has modules for installation, record-keeping, security, preferences definable by department, billing, and trouble reporting. It can also talk to other platforms' network managers, like IBM NetView and SunNet Manager. Jordan is targeting customer-specific configuration as a way to build innovation instead of confusion. For example, developers are working in a demo room equipped with a full editing studio to produce a video-based help system that customers will be able to access in real time. "We want to give hypermedia help," Jordan says. "NeXT-STEP 3.0 gives that functionality, but this will go a step further. A user could watch a technician schedule a circuit, if that's what they need. They can back up the tape, fast forward it. It's all up to them." The videodisc library may be completed as early as next year, if compression technology becomes available.

In addition, Jordan's team has constructed an alarm-monitoring system with "rules-based reasoning capabilities." A breakdown in any computer system can send hundreds of messages scrolling past a system administrator. If there is a problem on a customer's ATM network, the software's customizable configuration will intelligently formulate error messages and give administrators just the information they need to report the problem. The software also includes a "trouble ticket" to automatically initiate problem reports and track their progress through WilTel's control center.

By keeping his eye on innovation and his ear open to feedback, Jordan hopes to promote what he calls "knowledge engineering" with his clients. "I hate the term 'artificial intelligence,' " he says, smiling again. "You bump into artificial intelligence all the time on the street."

Eliot Bergson is associate editor at NeXTWORLD.