NTON testbed makes progress toward bandwidth-intensive applications

Oct. 1, 1999

NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory put high bandwidth to the test recently by sending multiple uncompressed streams of high-definition video at multiple OC-48 (2.5-Gbit/sec) speeds from Pasadena to Oakland, CA, and back again. The unique demonstration will pave the way for future high-speed broadband applications. The demand for such applications is rising, not just in government-related activities, but also in the entertainment industry, medicine, science, and research.

Providing the infrastructure to enable these bandwidth-intensive applications is the goal of the National Transparent Optical Network (NTON), part of a national telecommunications testbed. NTON provides the West Coast connectivity for the Defense Advanced

Research Projects Agency (DARPA)-sponsored SuperNet, which is an integral part of the U.S. government's Next Generation Internet (NGI) project. On the East Coast, there are several other networks and network segments involved in the national testbed project, including the Advanced Technology Demonstration Network (ATDnet) being developed around the Washington, DC, beltway by the Multiwavelength Optical Networking (MONET) consortium.

NTON is jointly funded by DARPA and members of a consortium that includes GST Telecommunications Inc. (Vancouver, WA), Nortel Networks (Brampton, ON), the Department of Energy's Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (Livermore, CA), and Sprint Communications Co. (Kansas City, MO). This consortium is responsible for managing the unique research and development platform for developing and experimenting with high-bandwidth applications and for field-testing emerging technologies.

NTON is a 2000-km network capable of up to 20-Gbit/sec capacity using dense wavelength-division multiplexing (DWDM) technology over an in-place fiber infrastructure provided by GST. The project has been underway since February 1996, when DWDM was just beginning to rear its head in the telecommunications industry and normal connectivity for most "heavy" users was over a T1 (1.554-Mbit/sec) line.

The Jet Propulsion Laboratory is the first organization to test and demonstrate research applications on the initial segment of the NTON, which became operational between San Francisco and Los Angeles in late July of this year. Additional segments are planned for activation before year-end, when the entire network will be operating at speeds up to 10 Gbits/sec, connecting San Diego to Seattle. Discussions are already taking place with other potential network users, including Caltech, Boeing, Tektronix, and the San Diego Supercomputing Center.

"The NTON project has two explicit goals," says Bill Lennon, engineer and principal investigator at Lawrence Livermore. "The first is to showcase high-bandwidth, high-profile applications that will demonstrate to the private sector that investing in high-bandwidth infrastructure is a good idea and makes good business sense. Not only does the country benefit, but the businesspeople who get involved will also benefit. The second complimentary goal is to field-test emerging technologies that make it all possible. The good news about our infrastructure is that we have sufficient capacity to do both activities simultaneously."

NTON uses GST's fiber-optic backbone build, transmitting over fibers contained in the same conduits that provide commercial services for GST customers. Currently, commercial services and NTON-related transmission use separate fiber within the conduit. But with DWDM technology, it is theoretically possible for GST to have commercial traffic on the same physical fiber should it become necessary at some point. Fiber counts within the conduit range from 64 to 144, depending on the span as well as specific deals made with other carriers.

"Very, very few carriers exclusively own their fiber builds today," says Benjamin Peek, senior fellow with GST. "More typically, we go out and strike a deal with partners like Level 3 or Williams and put multiple conduits in with 144 fibers in one conduit. Then we split the capacity up between three or four parties that funded the multimillion-dollar build."

Peek believes the NTON project will eventually cast a much wider net than its current West Coast presence. The goal is to use the SuperNet and NTON research platforms to create the public realization that high-bandwidth applications will be systemic throughout the U.S. and globally within the next three to five years.

"The kinds of applications we're looking at fielding over the NTON network are those that will become household names within five years," says Peek. "I think the whole idea of enabling the kinds of applications, such as prostate and breast cancer treatment scenarios, is exactly what everyone expects to see in the near future. Medical data, remote telemedicine, radiation treatments, and other scenarios will be handled using a supercomputer that could be 1000 miles away."

"NTON's reach, its scope, its speed, and the fact that any community of researchers can be joined over a single platform makes it somewhat unique. In my personal opinion, it's the most interesting research program in telecommunications anywhere on the planet today," adds Peek.

Numerous telecom research projects and testbeds, such as NGI, Abilene, Internet2, SuperNet, and ATDnet, are underway across the North America, pushing capacities, speeds, and technological extremes. How will NTON fit into the overall scheme of a national "super network"?

"Although we're a West Coast project, we're good friends with the people going across the country," says Lennon. "We peer with them. We peer with the entire Internet2 research network, for example. NTON is unique, but friendly. It's entirely possible for someone who wants to do NTON-enabled research but isn't connected to NTON to use some of these other resources to access NTON. So even though it's physically located on the West Coast, it's truly a national resource."

Nov. 13 to 19, NTON will "strut its stuff" as the off-floor segment of Scinet, an integrated network environment constructed specifically for the SC99 convention at the Oregon Convention Center in Portland, OR. Scinet boasts blistering speeds and technologies that "are still too new to be formally supported by vendors," according to show organizers. NTON will provide multiple OC-48 connections linking the SC99 exhibit floor to the major research and commercial networks, including Esnet, the Defense Research Education Network (DREN), and Internet2.