There are two fundamental approaches to moving data through a network of links and switches: circuit switching and packet switching.
In circuit switched networks, the resources needed along a path (buffers, link transmission rate) to provide for communication between the end systems are reserved for the duration of the communication session between the end systems. In packet-switched networks, these resources are not reserved; a session’s messages use the resources on demand, and as a consequence, may have to wait (that is, queue) for access to a communication link. As a simple analogy, consider two restaurants, one that requires reservations and another that neither requires reservations nor accepts them. For the restaurant that requires reservations, we have to go through the hassle of calling before we leave home. But when we arrive at the restaurant we can, in principle, immediately be seated and order our meal. For the restaurant that does not require reservations, we don’t need to bother to reserve a table. But when we arrive at the restaurant, we may have to wait for a table before we can be seated.
Traditional telephone networks are examples of circuit-switched networks. Consider what happens when one person wants to send information (voice or fax) to another over telephone network. Before the sender can send the information, the network must establish a connection between the sender and the receiver. This is a bona fide connection for which the switches on the path between the sender and receiver maintain connection state for that connection. In the jargon of telephony, this connection is called a circuit. When the network’s links (representing a fraction of each link’s transmission capacity) for the duration of the connection. Since, a given transmission rate has been reserved for this sender-to-receiver connection, the sender can transfer the data to the receiver at the guaranteed constant rate.
Figure 1.13 illustrates a circuit-switched network. In this network, the four circuit switches are interconnected by four links. Each of these links has four circuits, so that each link can support four simultaneous connection. The hosts (for example , PCs and workstations) are each directly connected to one of the switches. When two hosts want to communicate, the network establishes a dedicated end-to-end connection between the two hosts. Thus, in order for Host A to communicate with Host B, the network must first reserve one circuit on each of two links. In this example, the dedicated end-to-end connection uses the second circuit in the first link and the fourth circuit in the second link. Because each link has four circuits, for each link used by the end-to-end connection, the connection gets on forth of the link’s total transmission capacity for the duration of the connection. Thus, for example, if each link between adjacent switches has a transmission rate of 1 Mbps, then each end-to-end circuit-switch connection gets 250 kbps of dedicated transmission rate.
In contrast, consider what happens when one host wants to send a packet to another host over a packet-switched network, such as the internet. As with circuit switching, the packet is transmitted over a series of communication links. But different from circuit switching, the packet is sent into the network without reserving any link resources whatsoever. If one of the links is congested because other packets need to be transmitted over the link at the same rate, then the packet will have to wait in a buffer at the sending side of the transmission link and suffer a delay. The internet makes its best effort to deliver packets in a timely manner, but it does not make any guarantees.
Multiplexing in Circuit-Switched Networks
A circuit in a link is implemented with either frequency-division multiplexing (FDM) or time-division multiplexing (TDM). With FDM, the frequency spectrum of a link is divided up among the connections established across the link.
Specifically, the link dedicates a frequency band to each connection for the duration of the connection. In telephone networks, this frequency band typically has a width of 4 kHz (that is, 4000 hertz or 4000 cycles per second). The width of the band is called, not surprisingly, the bandwidth. FM radio stations also use FDM to share the frequency spectrum between 88 MHz to 108 MHz, with each station being allocated a specific frequency band.
For a TDM link, time is divided into frames of fixed duration, and each frame is divided into a fixed number of time slots. When the network establishes a connection across a link, the network dedicates one time slot in every frame to this connection. These slots are dedicated for the sole use of that connection, with one time slot available for use (in every frame) to transmit the connection’s data.
Figure 1.4 illustrates FDM and TDM for a specific network link supporting up to four circuits. For FDM, the frequency domain is segmented into four bands, each of bandwidth 4kHz. For TDM, the time domain is segmented into frames, with four times slots in each frame; each circuit is assigned the same dedicated slot in the revolving TDM frames. For TDM, the transmission rate of a circuit is equal to the frame rate multiplied by the number of bits in a slot. For example, if the link transmits 8,000 frames per second and each slot consists of 8 bits, then the transmission rate of a circuit is 64kbps.
Proponents of packet switching have always argued that circuit switching is wasteful because the dedicated circuits are idle during silent periods. For example, when one person in a telephone call stops talking, the idle network resources (frequency bands or time slots in the links along the connection’s route) cannot be used by other ongoing connections. As another example of how these resources can be underutilized, consider a radiologist who uses a circuit-switched network to remotely access a series of x-rays. The radiologist sets up a connection, requests an image, contemplates the image, and then requests a new image. Network resources are allocated to the connection but are not used (i.e. wasted) during the radiologist’s contemplation periods. Proponents of packet switching also enjoy pointing out that establishing end-to-end circuits and reserving end-to-end transmission capacity is complicated and requires complex signalling software to coordinate the operation of the switches along the end-to-end path.
Before we finish our discussion of circuit switching, let’s work through a numerical example that should shed further insight on the topic. Let us consider how long it takes to send a file of 640,000 bits from Host A to Host b over a circuit-switched network. Suppose, that all links in the network use TDM with 24 slots and have a bit rate of 1.536 Mbps. Also suppose that it takes 500msec to establish an end-to-end circuit before Host A can begin to transmit the file. How long does it take to send the file? Each circuit has a transmission rate of (1.536 Mbps)/24 = 64kbps, so it takes (640,000 bits)/(64 kpbs) = 10 seconds to transmit the file. To this 10 seconds we add the circuit establishment time, giving 10.5 seconds to send the file. Not that the transmission time is independent of the number of links: The transmission time would be 10 seconds if the end-to-end circuit passed through one link or a hundred links.
Packet Switching Versus Circuit Switching
Having described circuit switching and packet switching, let us compare the two.
Critics of packet switching have often argued that packet switching is not suitable for real-time services (for example, telephone calls and video conference calls) because of its variable and unpredictable end-to-end delays (due primarily to variable and unpredictable queuing delays). Proponents of packet switching argue that (1) it offers better sharing of transmission capacity than circuit switching and (2) it is simpler, more efficient, and less costly to implement than circuit switching. An interesting discussion of packet switching versus circuit switching is [Molinero-Fernandez 2002]. Generally speaking, people who do not like the hassle with restaurant reservations prefer packet switching to circuit switching.
Why is packet switching more efficient? Let’s look at a simple example. Suppose users share a 1 Mbps link. Also suppose that each user alternated between periods of activity, when a user generated data at a constant rate of 100 kbps, and periods of inactivity, when a user generated no data. Suppose further that a user is active only 10 percent of the time (and is idly drinking coffee during the remaining 90% of the time). With circuit switching, 100 kbps must be reserved for each user at all times. For example, with circuit-switched TDM, if a one-second frame is divided into 10 time slots of 100 ms each, then each user would be allocated one time slot per frame.
Thus, the circuit-switched link can support only 10 (= 1Mbps/100 kbps) simultaneous users. With packet switching, the probability that a specific user is active is 0.1 (that is 10 percent). If there are 3 users , the probability that there are 11 or more simultaneously active users is approximately 0.0004. when there are 10 of fewer simultaneous active users (which happens with a probability of 0.9996), the aggregate arrival rate of data is less than or equal to 1 Mbps, the output rate of link. Thus, when there are 10 or fewer active users, users’ packets flow through the link essentially without delay, as in the case of circuit switching. When there are more than 10 simultaneously active users, then the aggregate arrival rate of packets exceeds the output capacity of the link, and the output queue will begin to grow. (it continues to grow until the aggregate input rate falls below 1 Mbps, at which point the queue will begin to diminish in length). Because of the probability of having more than 10 simultaneously active users is miniscule in this example, packet switching provides essentially the same performance as circuit switching, but does so while allowing for more than three times the number of users.
Let’s now consider a second simple example. Suppose there are 10 users and that one user suddenly generates one thousand 1,000-bit packets, while other users remain quiescent and do not generate packets. Under TDM circuit switching with 10 slots per frame and each slot consisting of 1,000 bits, the active user can only use its one time slot per frame to transmit data, while the remaining nine time slots in each frame remain idle. It will be 10 seconds before all of the active user’s one million bits of data has been transmitted. In the case of packet switching, the active user can continuously send its packets at the full link rate of 1 Mbps, since there are no other users generating packets that need to be multiplexed with the active user’s packets. In this case, all of the active user’s data will be transmitted within 1 second.
The above examples illustrate two ways in which the performance of packet switching can be superior to that of circuit switching. They also highlight the crucial difference between the two forms of sharing a link’s transmission rate among multiple data streams. Circuit switching pre-allocates use of the transmission link regardless of demand, with allocated but unneeded link time going unused. Packet switching on the other hand allocates link use on demand. Link transmission capacity will be shared on a packet-by-packet basis only among those users who have packets that need to be transmitted over the link.
Although packet switching and circuit switching are both prevalent in today’s telecommunication networks, the trend has certainly been in the direction of packet switching. Even many of today’s circuit-switched telephone networks are slowly migrating toward packet switching. In particular, telephone networks often use packet switching for the expensive overseas portion of a telephone cell.