Research, education, and beyond

by Jim Gerrity

The final exam was last month. The semester projects have been turned in. CSCE 590 Section 1, “Introduction to High-Performance Computing,” is over. But the network that enabled the spring 2007 University of Arkansas class is only getting started.

The Arkansas Research and Education Optical Network (pronounced “ARE_ON”) was introduced in December 2006 with a ceremony attended by the university chancellor, the state’s director of higher education, and one of the network’s most persistent champions, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee.

The optical network-leveraging high-definition television (HDTV) and grid computing-supported the class on high-performance computing this spring. University of Arkansas students convened Tuesday and Thursday afternoons at the main campus in Fayetteville; Dr. Thomas Sterling, the inventor of the Beowulf supercomputer, lectured from Louisiana State University’s campus in Baton Rouge, about 650 miles away. Connectivity between the two campuses was facilitated through 10-Gbit/sec optical connections to the National LambdaRail. ARE_ON also provides researchers at the University of Arkansas connectivity to Internet2.

This is only the beginning for ARE_ON. Plans call for linkages to more campuses throughout the state and to more research and education infrastructures beyond Arkansas. And the network is expected to eventually have a tremendous impact on other areas of life-improving, for example, medical care in rural Arkansas communities and spurring economic development.

ARE_ON (www.areon.net)-part of a global build-out of regional optical networks (RONs) of unprecedented power, scope, and flexibility in the wake of the dot-com bust-was launched to integrate Arkansas with the international research and education community.

The network is being developed in phases. The first 187-mile phase was completed in December 2006, and University of Arkansas researchers today have connectivity to two of the foremost U.S. advanced networking consortia.

Internet2 brings the U.S. research and academic community together with technology leaders from industry, government, and the international community to undertake collaborative efforts that have a fundamental impact on tomorrow’s Internet. For example, the Globus MEDICUS project seeks to enable and promote the seamless exchange of bandwidth-intensive medical information and images that will help to revolutionize healthcare around the world.

National LambdaRail, a major initiative of U.S. research universities and private sector technology companies, provides a national-scale infrastructure for research and experimentation in networking technologies and applications. National LambdaRail’s affiliated projects include the National Center for Analysis and Prediction of Storms (CAPS), which develops and demonstrates techniques for the numerical analysis and prediction of high-impact local weather and environmental conditions.

In subsequent phases, ARE_ON could link with other state, regional, national, and international research and education infrastructures such as the Great Plains Network. More academic offices on the University of Arkansas campus in Fayetteville are to be connected. And more of the state’s 10 other four-year institutions will be brought onto ARE_ON as fiber-optic infrastructure becomes available. ARE_ON is slated to be extended more than 1,000 miles over the course of this year.

Planners envision ARE_ON eventually will be used to connect to all of the state’s public colleges and universities and to extend telemedicine services into remote regions of Arkansas. The state’s business community also stands to benefit from ARE_ON, as the network could be used to support commercial supercomputing applications. Former Gov. Huckabee, who in December 2005 provided $6.4 million in state funding for the University of Arkansas to create the network, said in a press release, “It’s impossible to foresee all of the possible positive ramifications of ARE_ON for our state, but certainly this is a project that I believe is critical to the future of Arkansas.”

In introducing the network last year, the University of Arkansas said ARE_ON would increase its on-campus network transmission by 20×, boost off-campus network speed by almost 100×, and provide 2,000× the bandwidth available with DSL and cable modem access.

ARE_ON’s key underlying technology is DWDM, which enables any standard protocol to ride assigned wavelengths for secure transport across a fiber strand at native speed. It is ARE_ON’s high-bandwidth, protocol-agnostic capabilities that enable applications such as grid computing, HDTV, and efficient exchange of huge files including, for example, three-dimensional images. (In the past, these files might have been exchanged by shipping storage discs.) The DWDM-enhanced ARE_ON infrastructure currently is capable of carrying 40 channels of traffic at speeds reaching 10 Gbits/sec, which gives planners plenty of room for expansion in services, sites, and users without the complexity and costs of physically installing more optical fiber.

The University of Arkansas selected ADVA Optical Networking’s Fiber Service Platform (FSP) 3000RE to provide DWDM-based backbone transport for ARE_ON. According to David Merrifield, associate director for computing services with the University of Arkansas, ARE_ON developers chose ADVA Optical Networking as a supplier because of its experience and reputation (the company has supplied the FSP 3000RE for other research and education networks in the US and Europe). As for the system itself, Merrifield says the DWDM equipment will enable ARE_ON to grow cost-effectively with its users’ needs. “The FSP 3000RE makes it easy to provision additional services or seamlessly adopt more advanced capabilities such as dynamic reconfigurability,” he explains.

The research and education community has historically had a hand in bringing about some of optical networking’s most important innovations, and this is the case again in dynamic reconfigurability. Some RONs are already making use of multidegree reconfigurable optical add/drop multiplexing (ROADM) and generalized multiprotocol label switching (GMPLS) control plane functionality to support grid-computing applications for research ­projects.

These two technologies work together to enable cost-effective, simple, rapid, and remote switching of wavelengths via software control. The GMPLS control plane, according to standardized software protocols and labels on traffic data packets, automatically triggers the multidegree ROADMs to direct high-speed traffic through the appropriate DWDM channels. In this way, connectivity can be established between any two network endpoints without the need to send out trucks with IT personnel to perform manual configurations. Partners could even be connected to the network by disparate access media-SONET/SDH, Optical Transport Network (OTN), TDM, IP, or ATM, for example.

The introduction of dynamic reconfigurability in optical networks will make grid-computing applications more affordable and available to more institutions for healthcare, multisite computation and data mining, shared virtual reality, virtual laboratories, digital libraries, distributed learning, digital video, and tele-immersion services.

The University of Arkansas has formed a steering committee to begin looking into development of Phase 2 of ARE_ON. A higher education bond issue approved by Arkansas voters in November 2006 included the funding to link all of the state’s four-year institutions to the network.

As networks such as ARE_ON expand and increasingly more sophisticated optical networking capabilities are developed and implemented, limitations on imagination dissolve. The ways we study, teach, research, care, and work are being fundamentally transformed. With ARE_ON, Arkansas has positioned itself on the cusp of this change.

Jim Gerrity is director, enterprise market verticals development, at ADVA Optical Networking (www.advaoptical.com).

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