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The weathermen's WAN man

Jerry Janssen's role as a network guru for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration makes for sunny, technology-filled days.

By Julie Bort

Every day is the stuff of Hollywood dramatizations for Jerry Janssen, network manager for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Boulder, Colo.

The movie "Twister"? That was about the work of NOAA scientists. Global-warming statistics? They're from NOAA. Your seven-day weather forecast? Chances are it comes from NOAA's National Weather Service or from NOAA-created weather forecasting equipment. The folks at this federal agency issue tornado, thunderstorm and hurricane warnings, monitor carbon dioxide levels, manage fisheries, collect solar flare data - and the list goes on. If something affects the air or water, NOAA is gathering data on it, and the scientists in Boulder are inventing even better ways to do so.

"At the end of your life, if you've spent your career at NOAA, you can feel good about what you've done," says Janssen, 41, about the organization where he has worked for 20 years. "We save lives."

The science all around Janssen is one of the great joys of his job - which is to build and maintain a state-of-the-art network that can support everything from the squadron of satellites on the roof to a first-of-its-kind sphere projection system in the basement. (Not to mention the 2,100-node Beowulf Linux-cluster supercomputer on the fourth floor.)

A walk through the 5-year-old, pink, curved, stone building (a 37,200-square-foot showpiece among NOAA's 400 nationwide sites), feels like a trip through a world-class school. Windows frame the majestic Flatirons to the west, while high-tech visual displays dot the interior hallways. These illustrate wind movements, carbon monoxide readings, aircraft outfitted with NOAA instruments and more.

The hallways lead to rooms with more amazing devices. Science on a Sphere is the world's first to-scale globe projection system. It uses a sphere-shaped projection screen, four synchronized projectors, custom software and data gathered from NOAA, NASA and other federal departments to model Earth's climate in its natural shape. It can display canned loops (the devastating effects of global warming, for instance) or tap into the network to present live datastreams.

Upstairs in the Forecast Systems Lab, National Weather Service meteorologists gather for daily weather-forecasting sessions. Using homegrown software, a cluster of PCs functioning as a mini-computer, the calculation power of their Beowulf supercomputer and a movie-screen projection system, the meteorologists slice and dice thousands of bits of weather-related information received in real time from monitoring devices located worldwide.

All of this depends on the Boulder Network Operations Center (NOC), which operates under the watchful eyes of Janssen and his three-member team. The Boulder NOC provides the backbone and WAN connections for the organizations on campus: eight NOAA research labs, two NOAA data centers, a National Weather Service Forecast office, the Boulder laboratories for the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), and various other U.S. Department of Commerce offices. (NOAA and NIST are Commerce agencies.)

In addition to the scientists, who are themselves computer experts, each organization on campus employs two to 10 IT staffers. These professionals, all trained in security and networking, handle application, client and LAN infrastructures for their own departments. Once a packet leaves a departmental LAN, it is in Janssen's domain. While these IT personnel don't report to Janssen, they work in conjunction with him and his staff. Because of this, and the high-security needs of every federal department, Janssen quips, "My job is more like being an ISP than running a typical enterprise network."

Certainly, many a small ISP would drool over the Boulder NOC's network. "There are two Class B addresses in this building," Janssen boasts. "Everything is subnetted like crazy - it makes it fun for the router engineer."

The backbone comprises about two dozen Cisco Catalyst 6509 and 15 Catalyst 4506 switches connected via dual 1G bit/sec links. Juniper M10 and Cisco GSR routers funnel lab traffic onto the backbone at speeds ranging from 10M to 1G bit/sec.

The WAN is provided via the Front Range GigaPOP (FRGP), a consortium of government, university and research facilities to which NOAA belongs. FRGP provides a regional dense wavelength division multiplexing (DWDM) optical Ethernet network that spans throughout Colorado and into Wyoming. (The fiber the FRGP uses locally is jointly owned by NOAA and the city of Boulder through a fiber-laying project completed in 2000.) FRGP provides its members with Internet and Internet2 connectivity via low-cost, high-speed pipes. It also supports IPv6 and Web-based videoconferencing. Soon, the FRGP network also will link to the National LambaRail, a 10G DWDM optical Ethernet network being built by research facilities across the nation, Janssen says.

Because NOAA is a key organization for FRGP, Janssen's job includes a leadership role at it. He also sits on the board of NOAA's Network Advisory Committee and its High Performance Computing Committee (HPCC). The committees share network advancements with NOAA sites.

"In Boulder we push the technology limits. Then through committees like HPCC, we share what we learn and push it out to other sites. But at Boulder, we get to play with the new stuff first," he says.

Committee work keeps him involved in all of NOAA's major computing projects and traveling up to two weeks of every month. Fortunately, the outspoken Janssen, who moonlights as a ski instructor for the disabled, is up to the task. "This is a very public, person-oriented job. I have to be a people person as well as a Unix router geek," he says.

Meaningful work, cool science, state-of-the-art technology and participation in WAN research projects - what more could a network guy want?

Next: Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab at MIT

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Copyright © 2004 IDG Communications, Inc.

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