Beginner's Guide to Asynchronous Transfer Mode (ATM)

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Definition:​ 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.