Fiber-optic research net gains steam

National LambdaRail is branching out across the country and gaining commercial interest.


Despite a setback caused by Hurricane Katrina, National LambdaRail, a nationwide fiber-optic network designed to facilitate advanced network technology research, is gaining support.

While NLR is firmly planted in the research community, the results of experimentation and research done over the network are likely to find a way into the commercial arena, participants say, particularly in areas of next-generation protocols, network management tools, provisioning capabilities and security techniques - possibly in as little as 18 to 24 months, participants say.

Having finished the network's first build-out phase that connected points from east to west across the country last August, NLR's second phase connects southern points on the map and had been slated for completion in November.

However, Hurricane Katrina thwarted some of this progress, as a number of points of presence along the Gulf Coast are currently submerged, says NLR spokesman Greg Wood. The group plans to provide an update of phase two's progress this week, Wood says.

The first of it's kind, NLR's infrastructure uses dense wavelength division multiplexing technology to offer up to 40 simultaneous light wavelengths (or lambdas), each capable of transmitting at speeds of 10G bit/sec. Other research-oriented networks don't offer such dedicated capacity; Internet2, for example, connects more than 200 U.S. universities with one 10G-bit/sec link each. Currently there are six research projects underway that take advantage of NLR.

Cisco is providing the multiplexers, switches and routers for NLR, and Level 3 Communications is supplying the fiber. Sun in July announced it is working with NLR to connect its Sun Grid - an Internet-based utility service - to the network.

User involvement

But that's about the extent of vendor involvement in NLR. The network was designed by and for the research community, says Tom West, NLR's executive director, so the infrastructure is not managed by a vendor, but by users. "The primary benefit is this dedicated capability that is [the user's] own to control and manage," West says. NLR set a mandate that more than 50% of its capacity be dedicated to network technology research.

Users pay for a fixed amount of usage over a period of time, say three or five years, and get full use of one of the 40 dedicated wavelengths. That means researchers can experiment with new technologies without affecting or being affected by others. "It's like a highway system; I have my own lane, and no one else can get in," West says.

The Pittsburgh Supercomputing Center, jointly formed by Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Pittsburgh, was the first research organization to use NLR as part of its TeraGrid distributed architecture for scientific research. It is looking to take advantage of some new NLR features such as Layer 3 services, says Gwendolyn Huntoon, director of networking. For advanced IP research, the power and flexibility of NLR's network is key, she says.

"We have some well-known TCP/IP research, and we're looking at some additional services [from NLR] that will give us the opportunity to investigate revisions to protocols in the existing stack that might be disruptive if done over a commercial infrastructure," Huntoon says. "Certainly AT&T or Global Crossing doesn't want us experimenting on their network."

Other considerations

Cost also has been a reason to use NLR instead of some commercial services, Huntoon says, because the research network is competitively priced but more flexible with contracts than vendors tend to be.

And because NLR is developed for research institutions, the network covers key points on the map that commercial services might not, she adds.

Mid-Atlantic Crossroads (MAX), a multi-state consortium of 37 participants that provides internetworks for advanced research and education centered around Washington, D.C., plans to join forces with a similar group in Virginia and become an NLR member by early next year, according to Tony Conto, MAX executive director.

The group has been using Internet2 services for research and education, as well as experimentation, but is looking forward to NLR's dedicated wavelengths for some advanced projects.

"With Internet2 it was originally instantiated as a broadcast network, so you really couldn't parcel out a lambda to let you do this experimental work - you were afraid of breaking the network," Conto says. MAX plans to use services from both networks going forward, he says.

MAX members, which include universities, federal laboratories and agencies, and non-profits, will use NLR for more than advanced network research, Conto adds, offering examples such as telemedicine applications and physics experiments that will traverse the network.

The research rail

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National LambdaRail

Mid-Atlantic Crossroads


Pittsburgh Supercomputing Center

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