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Originating publication
July 01, 1996, Issue: 617
Section: Top Of The News
Emerging Technologies -- Catching Up With Technology
Evan Schuman

Raleigh, N.C. In many ways, this city of almost 200,000 is a site of technological extremes. The network technology supporting some 2,200 city government

workers includes leading-edge cable modems on a metropolitan-area network (MAN) populated by high-speed RISC servers. Yet many of those workers have only had desktop computers and E-mail for a few months.

As if to illustrate the point, the office of one of the city's technology managers is lined with a half-dozen Dilbert cartoons poking fun at a technologically advanced society, plus a picture of the less-advanced Gomer Pyle, when he was a central character in the 1960s Andy Griffith Show. It should be noted that all servers on the city network are named after characters from the show, based in mythical Mayberry, North Carolina.

Despite its move to the forefront of networking technology with cable modems, the city's biggest challenge has been justifying networking connections to many smaller sites located in neigborhoods to bring government programs closer to

residents.

The LAN at City Hall itself, officially the Avery C. Upchurch Government Complex, is based on a high-speed fiber channel, but many city offices have just a handful of barely computerized employees. Although the city didn't have enough data traffic to cost-justify T1s to all of those remote sites, cable lines were already in place near the offices.

Cost Efficient

That's where cable modems come in. "We were trying to find a cost-efficient means for these small offices. There was no efficient way" other than cable modems, says Frank Seiber, information services manager of Raleigh's Infrastructure Division, Information Services Department. "This was the least expensive and most effective way at the time."

When the city of Raleigh embarked on its cable-modem trial in April 1995 with Time-Warner Inc. using Zenith Data Systems modems, it was one of the first large-scale such tests. Today, the city has 28 sites on the cable network, with another nine proposed for later this year as the trial continues, said Michael C. Cotton, a systems analyst working with the city's cable modems.

Raleigh's cable-based MAN enables users in remote sites to communicate with the City Hall LAN via DECnet or the Digital Pathworks network operating system.

Seiber says he's been pleased with the results, after his technical staff and the cable provider got through the initial learning curve. One of the lessons learned from this implementation is that more effective power-surge equipment is required at remote sites due to heavy thunderstorms.

Reliability perceptions differ sharply among Raleigh city employees using the cable modems.

Humberto Tasaico, an administrator with the city's Metropolitan Planning Organization, uses the cable modem connection to access GIS map images from county offices depicting zoning and complex housing data on every home in the region. Tasaico says that he often compares that data with information from a CD-ROM containing all U.S. Census Data on the country.

During the last few months, he estimates the system has shown about 98 percent reliability. "And there are many times throughout the week when you never even notice it's there," because it operates so reliably, he says.

At the Parks and Recreation Department, however, Recreation Supervisor Susan Burney tells a different story. Burney spends much of her time looking at ASCII-text based registration data for residents wanting to enroll in city programs.

Before cable modems were in use, Burney used analog modems to connect to the City Hall LAN for more than 125 inquiries a week. The modems were obviously slower and more cumbersome, and they were also about three times as likely to have glitches compared with the cable modems.

Specifically, Burney estimated that the modems failed one out of every five attempts, while the cable modem connections fail or have problems about once every 15 attempts.

But even this latter seven-percent failure rate can be problematic when there are residents standing by, trying to register. "Sometimes you can't log on and other times it slows down and you then get kicked off," she says. "Often, it gets very sluggish and eventually it gives up," and cuts off the network connection.

Like most other users, though, Burney says the cable modem connections are without equal when they work.

Some of the problems are blamed on non-networking issues-such as squirrels sharpening their teeth on cable-while others are technical connection issues, including problems with cable splitters, that are still being resolved.

The effort is still a trial, after all, and the city's still getting a free ride, says Stewart P. Jones, another city systems analyst and one of the chief technicians on the project, partially due to his cable expertise as a Time Warner employee for more than a dozen years prior to taking a job with the city.

For most city workers, the computerization alone is appreciated. And if it takes using drops from the neighborhood cable company, so be it.

Copyright 1996 CMP Media Inc.

TW

 


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