DOE plans ultrafast network

The Energy Department plans to build what will be the fastest telecommunications network in the government, capable of transmitting 1 trillion bits of data per second by 2004.

The project would upgrade the existing Energy Sciences Network (ESNet) which connects more than four dozen DOE laboratories, contractors, other federal agencies, universities and research institutes, allowing scientists to share data, hold videoconferences, use DOE supercomputers and tap agency databases. Users outside DOE include NASA's Ames Research Center and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Among the first federal networks to employ Asynchronous Transfer Mode (ATM) technology, ESNet was developed by Sprint Corp. under a $50 million contract awarded nearly five years ago. Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, which runs ESNet for DOE, expects to award a follow-on contract, dubbed ESNet 3, in October.

"This is very cool," said Bob Deutsch, federal engineering director with Cisco Systems Inc., which hopes to supply equipment to the winning vendor. "They're going where no man or network has gone before, as they've done several times in the past."

The pact, which also will include a testbed to experiment with new technology before deploying it, could drive improvements in telecommunications for the government and commercial markets, similar to the way the Sprint contract exposed the early bugs in ATM and hastened its deployment by telecommunications carriers.

Federal agencies have started to use ATM—a way of transmitting data in equal-size "packets" so that no one data file creates a network bottleneck—to use the same network to send e-mail, graphics and video files. "They're asking for that under our FTS 2001 contract," said Tony Bardo, executive director for civilian networks with MCI WorldCom. "It's not out of the realm of possibility" that agencies will need terabit/sec networks in the future as "applications continue to get increasingly bandwidth-hungry."

"Getting that first customer for that technology does tend to put it on the table as an offering for other agencies," said Warren Suss, a Jenkintown, Pa., consultant. "I'm sure that once whoever wins this comes up with some advanced high-bandwidth offerings they'll shop those around to other agencies."

Today ESNet, which supports scientific research at DOE, runs at a top speed of 155 megabits/sec, more than triple the speed of the commercial Internet backbone. DOE's demand for bandwidth is doubling every year, as scientific simulations get larger and researchers in multiple locations need to share files in real time.

"We need to be close enough to the bleeding edge to be effective but not so close as to negatively impact the research," said James Leighton, the ESNet project manager. "It is a fine line to walk." Achieving the speed that DOE wants requires two types of advances in networking technology, Deutsch said. Vendors have to figure out how to move data faster over fiber-optic lines as well as how to reduce the steps it takes to break up files into packets that are small enough to transmit.

MCI is a probable bidder for ESNet, along with other major national telecommunications carriers. However, Bardo would not directly confirm that the company had submitted a proposal. A Sprint spokesman said his company is not competing for the contract because it is focusing its efforts on developing new services rather than new transport technologies.

Meanwhile, an AT&T spokeswoman said the company would not discuss its interest in the procurement. Qwest Communications International Inc., which some industry observers also named as a potential bidder, did not return calls seeking comment.

The ESNet request for proposals does not ask the vendor to supply any specific technologies. "This time around, they gave industry a lot more flexibility in coming up with the design," Suss said. "They'll do better than they did [last time, when] they overspecified their requirements and forced industry into some technological solutions that were premature."

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