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Research net set to fly

By , Network World
January 05, 2004 12:06 AM ET

Network World - The network research community is building an $80 million nationwide optical network that advocates say is the most ambitious and promising test bed since the creation of Arpanet - the Internet's precursor - in the late 1960s.

Called the National LambdaRail (NLR), the privately funded network will link universities in a dozen U.S. cities with 40 optical wavelengths, each operating at 10G bit/sec. Cisco is providing the multiplexers, switches and routers for the NLR, and Level 3 is supplying the dark fiber.

The first NLR link - from Chicago to Pittsburgh - was lit in November. Additional cities from Washington, D.C., to Seattle are scheduled to be connected by May (see map below).

Developments from the NLR could make their way into commercial offerings in as little as 18 to 24 months, participants say. Among the likely products are next-generation protocols, network management tools, rapid provisioning capabilities and security techniques.

NLR is "a giant step forward,'' says Ron Johnson, vice president of computing and communications in the Office of the Provost at the University of Washington, which is a founding member of the NLR. "The U.S. has lost its lead in Internet innovation. That's likely to be coming from Asia and Europe in terms of high-end network deployments and high-end applications. That's not good for our research community, and it's not good for the U.S. economy.''

Taking back the lead

The NLR is an attempt by the U.S. research community to seize back the lead on Internet development.

More than a decade has passed since U.S. academic, corporate and government researchers had access to a truly experimental, nationwide high-speed network.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the U.S. research community had access to the National Science Foundation's NSFnet, which linked five supercomputer centers at 45M bit/sec. However, NSFnet was used primarily for high-end scientific applications such as weather modeling and aerospace simulations rather than network traffic analysis and protocol testing.

The NLR, on the other hand, will reserve half its bandwidth for network-oriented research, while the other half will be available for scientific applications. That's why proponents compare it to the Arpanet, which was a military-funded network research project. The NLR can support experimentation at the optical, switching, routing, middleware and application layers of the network.

Disruptive, next-generation Internet technologies are "not going to be discovered in some little lab but in connecting to a real-world network and seeing what happens,'' Johnson says. "That's where the innovation came from with Arpanet and NSFnet. NLR gives us a tool to work on those sorts of applications.''

The NLR demonstrates "a level of collaboration that hasn't existed on a national scale aimed at new technologies and network research since the early days of the Arpanet,'' agrees Tracy Futhey, vice president for IT and CIO at Duke University and chair of the NLR board. "It's a really exciting project.''

The network project is an outgrowth of several years of talk within U.S. academic circles about the need for a new infrastructure for network experimentation and development. That's because network researchers can't run many experiments on the Internet2, a production network that links 200-plus U.S. universities with one 10G bit/sec link. College students swapping music and video files consume much of Internet2 bandwidth.

"With Internet2, we have a very big highway - 10G bit/sec - but it's one lane,'' explains NLR CEO Tom West. "The problem for network researchers is the freshman downloading Napster or the astronomer who is eating up the bandwidth . . . NLR is 40 lanes vs. one lane.''

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