- By Jason Miller
- Sep 03, 2004
Postal Service's new gigabit network spurs a 100-fold boost in data speed, with room to grow
Charlie Bravo, senior vice president for intelligent mail and address quality, said the networking project is a leap forward from USPS's former piecemeal process.
Until recently, many of the largest U.S. Postal Service facilities were choking on their own data.
Address directories used to make sure mail was delivered to the right place took three to four days to update. IT managers could transfer address data only to a limited number of mail processing machines at a time, and it took about two hours per machine. And the local area network could only handle a specific number of computers at a time.
The limitations were costly and slowed the processing of the mail, USPS officials said.
But in May, IT workers installed a new 1-Gbps Gigabit Ethernet LAN backbone at 62 Postal Service facilities, giving the system a Heimlich maneuver of sorts.
'We can update the address directory daily, and we can download the information to all the machines in two or three minutes each,' said Randall Root, project manager for the mail processing infrastructure initiative. 'This just shows how antiquated our old network was. We have enough capacity now for the next five years.'
This initiative replaced copper wires installed in 1986 that transmitted data at 10-Mbps with fiber-optic wiring that will increase the data transfer rate by 100 times, said Charlie Bravo, senior vice president for intelligent mail and address quality.
USPS hired Government Telecommunications Inc. of Chantilly, Va., in June 2003 to upgrade 62 facilities. Northrop Grumman Corp. also is providing engineering services as part of the project.
GTI uses Cisco Systems Inc.'s Catalyst 3550 and 6200 24- or 48-port switches for the LAN. The system has a star topology configuration, starting at the telecommunications closet and spreading out to the switches and eventually to the machines.
'For the old copper wiring, we had to use vampire clamps to bite into the wire to plug-and-play connections,' Bravo said.
The LAN drops the rate of data transmission to 100-Mbps when it sends information to the switches, Root said.
The LAN also connects to the service's WAN, run by MCI Communications Corp. Information is stored at one of the Postal Service's data centers around the country.
USPS has received approval from its board of governors to begin Phase Two of the project, upgrading 108 more facilities over the next year, including two administrative centers and six remote encoding centers. At the remote encoding centers, images of mail that could not be read by optical character recognition machines are sent via the WAN so USPS employees can attempt to code the letters.
The project, costing tens of millions of dollars, is a huge change from the way USPS first began updating its wiring, Bravo said.
Bravo would not offer a more specific cost of the project because USPS considers it procurement-sensitive, he said.
Before the board of governors approved the project, Bravo said, his office upgraded three to four facilities each year.
'By doing it in a piecemeal way, we were not getting economies of scale,' Bravo said. 'We also were impacting other programs, because trying to network machines with the old wiring was not as easy as it is now.'
USPS received six offers from vendors that were 20 percent lower than their prices on the General Services Administration's Federal Supply Service schedules, Bravo said.
When USPS installed the old wiring, few facilities had optical character readers, and most facilities had five to 10 computers. The address directory had only 130 million characters.
Now, most facilities have 50 to 150 computers and hundreds of optical character readers and bar code sorters, and the address directory has 6 billion characters of information.
Bravo said USPS expects all these numbers to grow.
The system also is flexible, so USPS can increase the number of switches if needed.
'As technology improves, we can put it right in,' Root said.
For instance, Root said Cisco is testing a 10-Gigabit Ethernet backbone network card. If USPS decided to increase its capacity with the new technology, it would be an easy upgrade, Root said. Ethernet configurations are backward-compatible.
As the facilities are upgraded, USPS's intelligent mail services also will improve, Bravo said.
The new network will let information flow more easily and will let the Postal Service add more information to its bar codes.
Bravo said that, starting this fall, the network will carry information from two-dimensional and four-state postal bar codes. In 2004, 2.6 billion pieces of mail used the 2-D postal code, he said. He expects the number to increase to 5.2 billion next year.
'We are putting the infrastructure in to support intelligent mail and that will increase the mail's value to us,' Bravo said.