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Met Life buys growth insurance.


The Hinsdale central-office disaster in May 1988 gave Metropolitan Life Insurance a good scare.

Met Life's Chicago Insurance-processing facility, employing about 1500 people, was without data for a week and without voice for nearly three weeks as a result of the downed CO.

Darlane Hoffmann--assistant vice president, telecommunications--learned something about the urgency of voice capability.

Her job, after 15 years with the company, had recently been expanded to include voice.

"I grew up on the data side of the organization," she says. "To me there was nothing more important than data. When Hinsdale Happened, it made me realize the short-term requirement--the hottest item on Day One--is voice. They were willing to wait for five days for data, but they wanted voice now."

The Hinsdale fire resulted in the installation of a satellite-backup network. But even now, Hoffman can't rest easy.

Disaster backup and recovery (DBR) for a company of this stature would always be a work in progress.

Met life had been the prototype for a new AT&T route-diversity service.

Formerly, "diversity" had included two cables lying in the same right of way.

"When the train wrecked and cut through all the facilities on that side of the right of way, you were knocked out completely," she says.

Partial Help

Now, Met Life's T1 backbone linking four data centers--in New York, Scranton, Pa., Greenville, S.C., and Wichita, Kan.--enjoys route diversity. Any two lines between Point A and Point B lie on opposite sides of the right of way, preventing complete loss of service from such potential physical disturbances as train wrecks and backhoes.

Met Life does pay a special tariff rate for route diversity.

But Hinsdale reminded Hoffman of how Met Life was still vulnerable at the last mile. It also raised even worst-case scenarios. "What happens if our data center were to be lost? How really to route around that?" she wonders.

She thinks she's done a good job with CCR (customer controllable reconfiguration) capabilities of her DACS (digital access cross-connect switch). This software feature allows someone at New York headquarters, within 30 minutes, to issue an order through AT&T and get rerouted around a down data center. Hoffman has not yet had to do this.

Danger still lurks, however, where voice and data go through one building.

If anything happened to the Northern Telecom DMS-100 switch in the New York Telephone CO servicing Met Life's two Madison Avenue headquarters buildings, voice traffic to and from all employees in those facilities could end abruptly.

Route diversity would not help.

CCR would not help.

Calmer Nerves

The final backup Met Life went with was satellite. This eased some fears about the data centers.

But even now, facilities such as the insurance-processing operation in Chicago remain rather worrisome.

AT&T's tariffed route-diversity service only protects Met Life on the IXC (interex-change) part of the network. How, then, to back up Chicago's significant volume of voice and point-to-point data service from AT&T's facilities down to the Met Life site?

There were two ways to try to avoid a Hinsdale disaster at places such as this: microwave and satellite.

"We were fortunate to be able to get the help of AT&T with a microwave shot out of our facility in Chicago to their local servicing office. We got data restored within about a week of the Hinsdale crash," Hoffman remembers.

"It worked very well. We became enamored of microwave. Within 24 hours they had the microwave tower up and the wiring down to our destination points."

But a microwave backup network would cost too much.

Line-of-sight restrictions would be a constant headache. A clear shot today might be gone tommorrow. Updating the microwave network with repeaters to get around new buildings would be a constant concern and budget drain.

A comprehensive satellite DBR plan emerged as the viable solution.

American Satellite Corp., eventually bought by Contel ASC, had provided C-band service since 1979 for batch file transmission among the four data centers.

Surprise Test

Met Life stuck with Contel ASC. For the new application, C-band's unwieldy 10-meter dishes--commonly regarded an "extant" technology, Hoffman says--gave way to easily installable Ku band and the flexibility and economy of VSATs (very-small-aperture terminals).

VSAT dishes range from 1.6 to 3.0 meters in diameter.

The four data centers got the service first, in mid-1989.

Before Hoffman and her people knew the system was fully de-bugged and on-line, it got put to the test--and passed with flying colors.

"You might remember Hurricane Hugo spawned a lot of later thunderstorms," Hoffman says. "The Tyger River flooded and knocked out a huge piece of AT&T service. We were affected at out South Carolina data center. And unbeknownst to us--I mean it shocked us all--suddenly we found ourselves on satellite services. We didn't even know it would work."

Some degraded interactive response time was noted, as expected. "But we were up!" Hoffman says. "We were connected to the mainframe."

The T1 multiplexers at the data centers take care of the terrestrial (land-based) network. Alternate paths are constantly available if any service path breaks down within this "mesh" network.

Satellite service has been brought into these muxes. If any of the terrestrial routes breaks down, as some did after the hurricane, a preset priority scheme routes traffic to the last resort, satellite bandwidth.

Tinker With Software

The inherent half-second delay for going up and back is unavoidable. But something can be done to improve interactive response time in data transmissions.

When service switches to satellite, an interactive response time of two seconds degrades to five seconds or more. This problem can be somewhat alleviated by an adjustment in the algorithms that regulate the software, which is normally set for optimal performance on the terrestrial network. If satellite is going to handle traffic for a period of days, Met Life can change the settings.

The three Contel ASC T1 channels Hoffman runs have reconfigurable end points upon demand. A channel she uses from Greenville to New York today, she can deploy from Wichita to Scranton tomorrow. "This is tremendously good flexibility for certain kinds of disaster-backup scenarios," she says.

But outside the data centers, problems loom.

Lower-capacity insurance-processing centers depend more on the public network. Granted, 800 service can reroute calls to other destinations, making it look like nothing happened. But local voice and regular long distance remain vulnerable.

Hoffman estimates Met Life has between 30 and 50 locations such as the Chicago site where satellite backup is an economical proposition.

Muxing Challenges

"Our choices for some of these outlying offices are only one T1's worth of satellite capacity," she says.

"And then of course, when you get a T1 in there, how do you multiplex it down to the smaller channels your customer-premises equipment requires? You can't take T1 right into a control unit or a PBX, for example. It takes more hardware. There are some difficult economic issues with which to grapple."

A T1 channel can be divided into 24 56-kb/s channels. Met Life might give half the bandwidth to data and half to voice.

Hoffman is wrestling with ways to back up voice via satellite. "You've got to hook up the satellite to the PBX so it can get channeled over satellite when these disasters occur," she explains.

But her plan for these business-processing offices is, basically, to be able to recover a minimal amount of voice.

"Thank God for the few cellular phones that saved the day at Hinsdale. That's become part of our disaster plan, to have a couple dozen of those available to ship out."

The contract with Contel ASC was signed December 1988, three of the data centers getting dishes shortly thereafter. Met Life's Manhattan office is served by a shared hub at the New York Teleport on Staten Island, traveling to and from there over land lines. During 1989, dishes were also installed at three business-processing offices.

Price Break

Later in 1989 Met Life bought another six dishes for the business offices.

Hoffman expects to "grow" her network, over an estimated three to five years, to a capacity she thinks could require about 50 nodes.

When the six recently purchased are deployed within the next 16 months, Met Life will have (counting the shared VSAT at Teleport) 13 dishes on its backup network.

Darlane Hoffman feels pretty safe.

But she's paid to not feel safe.

AT&T's recent service outage as a result of software difficulties, which did minimal harm to Met Life, reconfirmed in her mind the problem of phone service at a major corporation.

Sell jobs from vendors alone don't drive network managers into backup schemes.

But the spectre of losing business does.

Hoffman tells a horror story from the Hinsdale fire:

"Some people called our Chicago office two years ago and got a message saying their call couldn't go through.

"They thought Met Life had gone out of business.

"We don't want that to happen again."
COPYRIGHT 1990 Nelson Publishing
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1990 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:satellite networks
Author:Gitlin, Bob
Publication:Communications News
Date:Mar 1, 1990
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