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Thursday February 15, 2001

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Backbone, heart and brains: the anatomy of the CCIT switch room

Headline Photo


Chris McCotter, a senior telecommunications systems technician, installs new phone lines yesterday afternoon in the university's phone systems and networking hub in the basement of the CCIT building. McCotter is part of a team in charge of monitoring and maintenance on all of the phone and computer lines on campus.

By Ayse Guner

Arizona Daily Wildcat

UA telecommunications take place in one computer and wire-filled room

Ring, ring.

Welcome to the switch room - what some call the heart of UA's telecommunications and World Wide Web access, but a room that few people who rely on it are aware of.

This room, which contains $25 million worth of equipment, would stay up and running even if the whole lighting system on the UA campus shuts down because of a natural disaster, said Walt Moody, a staff engineer for CCIT telecommunications.

This is also where the university's voice mail messages are stored, and where the data network comes together.

The room sits in the basement of the Center for Computing and Information Technology building in the northeast part of campus. It contains 17,000 phone lines criss-crossing through shelves and cables, and connecting to the campus buildings, making telecommunications and networking possible.

Behind two alarmed, locked-up doors, a $6 million computer made up of six rows of cabinets dominates the room. Fans that constantly run to cool off this large computer sound like the rumblings created from a jet-engine.

The computer, called Five Electrical Signaling System, provides all of the phone connections on campus, and is partly what replaced switchboard operators who did the same job decades ago.

The switch runs all of the Integrated Systems Digital Network lines - or multi-line phones - and analog, or simpler single-line phones.

From the time somebody dials a phone number, the computer finds the port of the number called in and routes the call, enabling the connection of two parties. Technicians call this "cold processing" - which is "pretty much from the time you pick up the hand set to the time you hang the hand-set back up," said Chris McCotter, a senior telecommunications systems technician, who works in the room along with four other technicians.

"You dial the digits, and then that telephone switch or the computer portion of it does the processing. It talks to a large switch and transports the information over here to set up the call," McCotter said. "In turn, we find your port and once you pick it up, then the talk path is then set up."

Labyrinth-like paths lead to blue and red phone lines that meet on metallic shelves, spanning from one side of the room to another.

Red lines are for specialty data circuits, whereas blue ones are primary voice lines, all connecting to terminating blocks.

These blocks connect to large black cables, each holding up to 1,800 lines. The cables are only allowed 50 feet in the room because they have substances in them that would be dangerous if the room caught fire. Those cables then sprawl to the outside world - distributing lines to where all business progresses.

Approximately 22,000 phone calls are made at the UA campus per hour. Nine thousand of those connect on-campus calls to other on-campus phones, 7,000 of them connect on-campus calls to off-campus and the remaining 6,000 calls come from outside.

If somebody on campus is away from his or her phone, or is already on the line when another call come through, the voice mail system, called OCTEL, takes care of the storage of each of those messages stored in an individual's mailbox.

OCTEL holds about 70,000 voice mail boxes, or accounts. Any voice mail that is on campus is programmed in this machinery.

This is not all of the machinery that sits inside the switch room, though.

Back-up systems, one a 48-volt-supply battery and another 120-volt, protect machines from burning in the case of a transformation from diesel generator to power feeding to the building comes back after a power strike.

"There is that lag time in between the loss of the building power to the generator kicking in, and that's when the batteries come in," McCotter said.

They also help diffuse any power strikes - when the power gets over an amount, it makes sure that there is no surges going into the equipment, he added.

During the off-peak hours, McCotter and his team maintain the telephone switch, monitoring and incorporating into the switch room. Over the holidays, they test if the batteries work and correct any failures.

The last portion of the room - the data portion - is comprised of other "reliable" computers, fibers and routers. There are three locations similar to this network room on campus - one in the Gould-Simpson building and another in the Arizona Health Sciences Center - but this is the biggest, providing 65 percent of all cables coming from UA building, said Saro Hayan, a senior networks systems analyst.

Fibers, which are CCIT's cables that allow data traveling over light, come into the basement of a building and receive data already delivered through wires coming out from a computer, united in a wire closet. When fibers receive the data, they bring them back to CCIT and connect to routes. Once the router receives the data, it makes a decision of where this traffic is going, Hayan said.

Routers eventually either connect the traffic to another router or handle it themselves, providing Internet access to an estimated 40,000 host computers on campus.

There are 14 routers in the room, each communicating with one another, and carrying a unique historical name, such as Wyatt.

Also, servers have cartoon character names, like Megatrone from the Transformers, a popular 1980s cartoon.