OMNInet tests emerging technologies, high-speed apps

Feb. 1, 2002


Nortel Networks (Brampton, Ontario), SBC Communications Inc. (San Antonio, TX) and its subsidiary SBC Ameritech, and Northwestern University (Chicago) recently unveiled a collaborative experimental network used to test and validate emerging technologies, applications, and architectures for metropolitan environments. Dubbed OMNInet (Optical Metro Network Initiative), the self-contained, four-node network is up and running-and already producing results.

SBC and Nortel have provided the infrastructure and components needed to deliver the necessary bandwidth, while Northwestern University's Inter national Center for Advanced Internet Research (iCAIR) is leading the creative content of the trial.

"What we are trying to do is design systems that specifically address city issues, metro issues," asserts Joe Mambretti, director of iCAIR and director of the Metropolitan Research and Education Network, a seven-state regional network in the upper midwestern United States. "It's an important area because the optical technologies that have been proven in long-haul networks are now migrating into regions, states, metro areas, and eventually they will move into the enterprise."

The OMNInet trial will examine high-end, high-performance applications and the provisioning capabilities of those applications as well as the digital services themselves and the advanced photonics needed to support them.

OMNInet is currently focused on testing 1- and 10-Gigabit Ethernet metro services. While Gigabit Ethernet (GbE) services are available for purchase today, those being tested in Chicago are more advanced; they are based on individual wavelengths. Mambretti and his associates are developing a multiwavelength switch fabric that serves 1- and 10-GbE streams, which enables dynamic switching-in this case, based on micro-electromechanical systems (MEMS) technology.

"Over the last six months, we have been doing switched Gigabit Ethernet, and now we're doing switched 10-Gigabit Ethernet, which I don't believe anyone has done yet, anywhere," claims Mambretti. "So we're testing 10-Gigabit Ethernet dynamically switched services, which allows what has been called 'point-and-click' provisioning of these services. I'm happy to report it's successful."

While the 10-GbE standard is not expected to be finalized until midyear, the folks behind OMNInet believe that 10-GbE could see commercial deployment in the near future. According to Bob Walters, executive director of optical networking at SBC, the carrier is planning to do something with 10-GbE this year.

Mambretti and his research partners are currently exploring high-end applications that require advanced, high-performance computer clusters linked to other clusters across MANs. Some of these applications involve Computer-Aided Virtual Environments (CAVEs), invented by scientists at the University of Illinois at Chicago's Electronic Visualization Laboratory, which is also a partner in the trial. CAVEs are three-dimensional interactive environments used in architectural design, large-scale instrumentation design, superconductor steering, and molecular modeling-all of which are bandwidth-intensive. Other high-end applications include data mining for both the scientific and commercial arenas and high-resolution streaming video for the medical field.

In addition to the University of Illinois at Chicago, iCAIR is also partnering with Argonne National Laboratory and CANARIE, the Canadian national research network, on the OMNInet trial.

OMNInet features four nodes spread across the Chicago area at West Taylor, Evanston, Lakeshore, and South Federal. At each node is an application cluster where the high-speed application development takes place. The application clusters are connected to a Nortel Passport 8600 routing switch, which provides the 10-GbE connectivity. A Nortel OPTera Metro 5200 then provides the 10-GbE lambda connectivity. "And that 10-Gigabit Ethernet link is connected via DWDM to an experimental optical platform, so we can actually switch lambdas between sites," explains Denise Dziubaniuk, analyst in the Advanced Technology Organization of Nortel Networks.

Data is transferred using IP over wavelengths; ATM is not used, says Mambretti. The OMNInet trial also uses a signaled overlay or Generalized MPLS architectural model in its control plane.

While admitting that there are many IT-type experiments going on at practically every university, Marian Stasney, senior analyst of carrier convergence infrastructure with the Yankee Group (Boston), believes that none have the breadth and agenda of OMNInet. Stasney is also interested in the educational aspects of the trial. "It's going to have a lot of student participation," she says. "And having gone through school and knowing there was nothing available for people in this field, I am happy to see this."

OMNInet is also unique because its creators intend to study not only the technology, but also the policy and business issues that arise when new networks and technologies are developed. "They will look at things like best practices, municipalities-how they should approach people who are developing these types of networks. I don't think this has been done before," she says, adding that Mambretti's background may have something to do with the educational slant of the project. In addition to serving as director of iCAIR, Mambretti is also a member of Mayor Richard Daley's Council of Technology Advisors. He heads up the council's Infrastructure Subcommittee, which is responsible for planning and organizing CivicNet, a public-private project designed to bring fiber to every neighborhood in the city (see Lightwave, January 2002, page 1).

Mambretti is quick to point out the differences. CivicNet is focused solely on Chicago, whereas the OMNInet project has global implications, he says. "We're trying to create a reference model that can be abstracted, optimized, and made available as a concept to any city in the world. Any city that wants to have an OMNInet will be able to see how to do it.."