Coming soon: the Autobahn network

Federal agencies will be able to reserve a fast lane on one of the world’s fastest networks

Internet2 Web site

If the Internet is an information highway, Internet2 is the autobahn. Since its founding more than 10 years ago as a network for the research and education community, Internet2 has become known for its speed, allowing users to send data-heavy files in seconds.

Now the network is undergoing a transformation that Internet2 officials say will make it not only faster but also more flexible. It will enable scientists to order access to temporary circuits for their private use — like having a lane on the autobahn all to themselves.

The network is expected to operational by the end of August for researchers and others. Engineers have already created and tested some temporary circuits, but the process still requires hand wiring. In a year or two, officials say, users will be able to provision those private lanes by clicking a few buttons.

“What the scientists want is bandwidth on demand,” said William Johnston, manager of the Energy Department’s Energy Sciences Network, known as ESnet, which has formed a partnership with Internet2. Johnston said the transformed network will give scientists the tools they need. For example, he said, it will enable physicists at laboratories worldwide to reserve a section of the network from, say, 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. on a Thursday, so they can have an  open pipe for transferring massive data files from particle colliders.

Researchers and administrators in other fields are also talking about how they might use the on-demand circuits. For example, federal agencies could employ them to transmit detailed satellite imagery when natural disasters strike.

“In the past, the whole Internet2 community shared one network, and data was commingled, and it worked because we had so much capacity,” said Gary Bachula, vice president for external relations for Internet2. But as the size of data grows, Bachula said, “some of our users will want their own networks.” They’ll soon have that option.  

 “This is a real turning point for high-end advances in research and education networking,” he said.

In a hotel conference room in Arlington, Va., in April, officials used maps projected onto huge screens to illustrate the workings of the private circuits. The demonstration was part of the spring meeting of the Internet2 consortium, whose members pay thousands of dollars for access to the network. Universities make up the bulk of its members, but many branches of the federal government have come on board in the past several years, including the National Science Foundation, NASA and the Library of Congress.

At the podium stood Tom Lehman, a computer scientist at the University of Southern California’s Information Sciences Institute. Lehman is a co-investigator on an NSF project to develop what he calls a “control plane” for setting up the circuits. While Lehman spoke, a developer next to him tapped away on an Internet2-connected laptop PC that was controlling the demonstration.

“Here is a picture of what is deployed,” Lehman said. A map to his left showed the eastern portion of the United States, where the first phase of the new network has been in place for several months. “Now we’re going to map a circuit,” he said, pointing from Washington, D.C., to Ann Arbor, Mich. A red line appeared between the two points. Within a second, the line turned green, indicating that data was flowing. Then the screen displayed a meter that showed how many bits were moving through the network. Network administrators can choose how much data they want to transfer. At one point, the meter showed a flow of 150 megabits/  sec; at another, 500.

“The big picture is that in the next six months we could do this on a multidomain basis,” Lehman said. “There are a lot of exciting ways to use it.”

Earlier, Internet2 traffic was running across a nationwide backbone called Abilene, which was built by Qwest Communications International and allowed speeds as fast as 10 gigabits/sec.  Last summer, Internet2 officials decided to abandon Abilene in favor of cables laid by Level 3 Communications. Those cables have a capacity for speeds of 100 gigabits/sec.

Now Internet2 will become a hybrid network, able to use waves of light to carry data. The system will have new optical capabilities, but it will also transfer data using the more common packet-switching paradigm. Many Internet2 users will continue to rely on packet-switching. But the optical technology will help those who want to order dedicated circuits, use them for a fixed period and then release them, Internet2 officials said.

Technicians have already switched five spans of the original backbone to the Level 3 network, including regional networks that serve Washington. The last phase of the rollout, to be completed by August, includes Portland, Ore.; Salt Lake City; Seattle; and Los Angeles.

Internet2 officials see many uses for the new network.  The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration could open special lanes to transmit urgent data on tornado warnings. The Federal Emergency Management Agency, which is not an Internet2 member, might want access to a dedicated circuit in the aftermath of a hurricane to quickly transmit high-resolution satellite images of which neighborhood blocks need the most immediate help.

Bachula said the ability to summon and reserve private networks will bring new opportunities for experimentation with optical network technology. NSF “could decide to set up a network to make it break,” he said. “They could create experimental networks that are designed to do things differently.”

Even experts in the humanities are starting to envision what they could do with the technology. Bruce Cole, chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), made a speech at the Arlington meeting about the agency’s interest in the use of high-speed digital tools and bandwidth. For example, Cole said, imagine what an archeologist might be able to accomplish if he had access to a traffic-free lane of Internet2 while working in a field and finding a mysterious piece of pottery.

“Today, he might have to wait until he returns to his university before he can solve the puzzle,” Cole said. “But imagine, instead, if he had the ability to make a 3-D scan of the pot right on the site.” The archeologist could beam the scan to a central database to make a fast comparison with already- analyzed pottery and, using that information, target the digging.

Already, scholars in the humanities have started working with high-tech imagery of Rome as it looked in ancient times. Researchers can fly through virtual 3-D streetscapes, which give the researchers new ways of confirming or debunking ideas of how people lived in the days of the Roman emperors. At the meeting, Cole displayed their work. For now, scholars can only fly through that 3-D virtual architecture if they are physically standing in front of the computer that holds the data. Regular networks are too crowded or not fast enough to send such large graphics in a continuous stream.   

“We need the speed and bandwidth of networks like Internet2 to reduce latency in the transmission of the imagery,” Cole said.

NEH is not a member of Internet2, but Cole said it has considered joining.

DOE has the strongest connection to Internet2. Its network, known as ESnet, is more than just a member of the Internet2 consortium; it is an active partner in developing Internet2 services. In August 2006, it announced that it would use Internet2’s infrastructure to build a faster, more reliable network, named ESnet4. DOE called the partnership “a quantum leap in providing the network support required by our scientific research community.”

The infusion of bandwidth will be sorely needed in the near future, said Johnston, the top official associated with ESnet. He is already preparing for a moment sometime in the next year when the Large Hadron Collider at CERN in Switzerland goes into operation and provides an explosion of new data to analyze. 

“The physics work at the Large Hadron Collider would not be possible without very high-speed networks,” Johnston said. By 2009, he predicted, physicists will be sending “a steady state of 20 gigabits/sec to the United States.” Researchers at universities and national laboratories will be exchanging files as large as 5G to 10G. “You can’t take over the campus networks to do this,” Johnston said, “so there is no way you could do that science without this new generation of networks.”

However, to make the network easy to use, more pieces need to fall into place. For one, Internet2 officials say, engineers will need to refine and employ tools that enable a new circuit to be set up dynamically. “Right now we have to hand wire it,” Bachula said.

To learn how to provision the circuits, engineers have been attending workshops led by Jerry Sobieski, director of research initiatives at Mid-Atlantic Crossroads, a regional network that works with Internet2. Sobieski is also a co-investigator with Lehman on the NSF-funded control plane project.

Members of the Internet2 consortium, meanwhile, will have to come to agreement on  how they will work together and who will be allowed to order up bandwidth.

“What we know we don’t have yet,” Lehman said, “is a good, solid user authentication that is tied to policy.” Administrators will need ways of assuring that “this person is who they say they are, and that the policy states that they are allowed to have 10 gigabits.”

Lehman predicts many policy-related discussions to come. “Every time you cross a boundary of an organization, you are crossing a domain boundary, and there is a lot you have to agree and negotiate on across those boundaries.”

Privacy and security questions also need to be addressed. Some Internet2 members have expressed concern about who will have control of data and where it will be stored as it moves over the new network.

Still, Sobieski expects that more people will see the value of being able to create on-demand fast lanes. “There is a lot of momentum both internally and internationally,” Sobieski said. “We’re very optimistic about it.”

Guernsey is an education, science and technology writer based in Alexandria, Va.
Internet2 organization announces the marriage of two networksInternet2 is experiencing a technological transformation and is on the verge of a merger with National LambdaRail, another high-speed, nonprofit research network.

At the Internet2 meeting in Arlington, Va., last month, the leaders  of both organizations were present to assure members that plans were moving forward.
If completed, the new entity will be called Internet2-National LambdaRail, or Internet2-NLR.

A deal almost came to fruition last year, fell apart and then was put on the table again. Some members of Internet2 had been hoping to hear in April that a merger agreement had been finally signed.

But Jeffrey Lehman, chairman of Internet2, said lawyers were still reviewing contracts and conducting due diligence to ensure the merger is in the best interests of each organization.

“We are confident and hopeful that this time around we’ll be successful,” Lehman said.

Internet2 has 337 members, including federal agencies, corporations, international research laboratories and 209 universities. National LamdaRail includes 19 members, most of which are umbrella groups for dozens of universities that are also Internet2 members. In addition, a few government institutions, such as NASA and the Energy Department’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory, have membership in both organizations.

“We have seen our two organizations enter into competition in various domains,” Lehman said at the April meeting. “That can be a healthy thing, but it also has costs. There were people in this community who felt that they were being forced to choose, to take sides.”

Lehman said that he did not expect the merger to result in upheaval for members of the organizations. Tracy Futhey, chairwoman  of National LambdaRail, concurred.

“The new organization will carry forward all the activities of the two organizations, “Lehman said.

“It will not be a simple fee-for-service utility, but a membership organization dedicated to public good for the research and education community.”

— Lisa Guernsey

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