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PC World

Internet2 project poised for launch

High-speed network linking research institutions will act as a technology testbed.


by James Niccolai

(IDG) -- Internet2, a project expected to help dramatically improve the Internet, will take a big leap forward this month with the launch in the U.S. of a high-speed, coast-to-coast network. Known as Abilene, the network will act as an important test-bed for developing a new generation of Internet applications and services.

Abilene has been 10 months in the making, and is comprised of 13,000 miles of fiber-optic cable looped between New York and Seattle. The network initially will link some 70 research institutions, operating at an impressive speed of 2.4G bits per second.

Abilene is a key component of Internet2, an initiative led by more than 130 universities working with the U.S. government and the computer industry to develop new network services and applications not possible over today's congested, public Internet.

End-users won't be able to log on to Abilene as they do with commercial networks; its primary purpose is to serve the academic research community. But the network will provide a testing ground for technologies that are expected to trickle into the global, public Internet, including IP multicasting, enhanced security applications, and Quality of Service (known as "QoS"), or the ability to offer guaranteed service levels for critical applications.

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Quality standards

"The Internet today has one service to offer: best-effort delivery of IP packets," said Stephen Wolff, executive director of advanced Internet initiatives at Cisco Systems, one of Abilene's three corporate sponsors.

A key goal of Internet2 is to improve that "best-effort" service by developing a way to implement QoS on the public Internet. Such a task is particularly hard today when data often travels across as many as eight separate networks before it reaches its destination, Wolff said. "The challenge is to find a way that collaborating but competing network providers can provide enhanced services," he said.

"We basically want to provide the Internet with the kind of reliability people are accustomed to seeing in their telephone network," echoed Brian McFadden, vice president and general manager of the Carrier Packet Solutions group at Nortel Networks.

Cisco, Nortel and Qwest Communications International, Abilene's other corporate sponsor, have donated millions of dollars in equipment, infrastructure and other resources to support the project. In return, they are able to partner with some of the best IT brains in the world to develop new technologies that will eventually be turned into products. One Abilene official termed their involvement "self-interested enlightenment."

At an official launch event planned for February 24 in Washington, D.C., Abilene participants will demonstrate applications including 30-frame-per-second broadcast-quality video and terabyte-size data library transfers. They will also show a telemedicine application that allows a doctor performing surgery to receive input in real-time from doctors in other parts of the country, Abilene officials said.

Technology trickle-down

Users might not have to wait too long before some of the technologies start to be incorporated into the mainstream Internet.

"You might see some [technologies] start to emerge as early as a year from now as a direct result of this," Nortel's McFadden said. QoS, advanced security features and directory services that make it easier to locate other users and information on the Internet may be the first to filter into the public domain, he said.

The project is also helping to define the next version of the Internet Protocol, IPv6 (Internet Protocol version6). A big gain with IPv6 is that it lengthens IP addresses from 32 bits to 128 bits and allows for the creation of more IP addresses -- solving what has been referred to as the Internet's Year 2000 problem.

Public property

Computer firms involved in the effort say they won't hoard the fruits of their endeavors. Indeed, much of the intellectual property that comes out of the venture will be at least part-owned by the universities, who traditionally are open about sharing their discoveries.

"Most of what we do is in support of open standards and open technologies; that's part and parcel of the academic way of doing things," Cisco's Wolff said. "It's generally accepted that concentrating on proprietary technologies is a dead end," he added.

One of two backbones

Abilene is one of two major backbones in the Internet2 project, an initiative overseen by the University Corporation for Advanced Internet Development. The other network is the very high-performance Backbone Network Service, provided by the National Science Foundation and MCI WorldCom. which is also for use by universities and research institutions.

Abilene initially will link about 70 universities with a 2.4G-bps network running over SONET (Synchronous Optical Network) equipment provided by Nortel. Eventually, it will rein in all 140-plus member universities and increase capacity to 9.6G bps, officials said. Qwest Communications donated 10,000 miles of its fiber-optic network for the venture, while Cisco is providing its advanced 12000 series gigabit switch routers, Cisco's Wolff said.

Tackling day-to-day problems faced by mathematicians and physicists, such as the need to have shared access to very large data files, offers good test case scenarios for testing technologies that will be useful on the public Internet, said Karen Adams at the University of Indiana, which is responsible for Abilene's day-to-day operations.

While Internet2 is a North American effort, academic researchers need to be able to share information with their counterparts overseas. To facilitate that, Internet2 has forged joint development agreements with equivalent organizations abroad, including Canada's Canarie Inc., the Scandinavian consortium Nordunet, and Stichting Surf of the Netherlands.

The ultimate aim of the project is to stitch together the networks in a high-bandwidth loop around the globe, and plans are already underway to link Internet2 with the Asia-Pacific Advanced Network, with the National University of Singapore acting as a hub, said Rose Rodd, an education industry manager at 3Com, which is one of the sponsors of Internet2.

Participants hope the international cooperation will help ensure global interoperability when the new technologies are deployed in the commercial Internet.

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