May 2005
The Cyberinfrastructure Backplane: The Jump to Light Speed
The National LambdaRail
Cyberinfrastructure for Tomorrow's Research and Education
David Farber, National LambdaRail and Carnegie Mellon University
Tom West, National LambdaRail


In the early 1990s, the research and education community realized that it had lost control of this critical resource to the telecommunications industry. In conjunction with funding for universities’ high-performance networking connections from the National Science Foundation, and in partnership with industry and other government agencies, Internet2 was formed in 1996 and launched the nationwide Abilene network as a 2.4 Gbps backbone in 1998. Regional networks extended Abilene’s capabilities to university campuses, including an upgrade of Abilene to 10 Gbps in 2003.

Today, we have multiple networks for research and education running over multiple global, national, regional, and institutional infrastructures. Some of these networks, such as the Internet2 Abilene backbone, are high performance networks that are shared by researchers from numerous disciplines. Other, more specialized networks, such as ESnet, are designed to serve the needs of a subset of the entire research community.

An important common characteristic of all the R&E networks deployed over the past three decades is that most of the underlying infrastructure has not been owned by the research and education community. Rather, the networks have been built from leased circuits from traditional telecommunications companies. It has also been true that the capabilities required by leading-edge science and education have often not been available as off-the-shelf services by commercial providers. Therefore, to meet its requirements the R&E community has needed to cobble together circuits and services from multiple providers. As a consequence, research groups have historically spent significant amounts of time and energy developing and securing the networking capabilities they need before conducting the scientific research that is their end goal.

Sea of Change

There are two significant forces that are fundamentally changing the nature of research and education networking and providing an opportunity to reduce the amount of effort needed to provide scientists with the networking capabilities they need.

First, there is a growing urgency to develop new network technologies that scale to the growing needs of the worldwide R&E community and, later, to commodity Internet users. Undertaking this development requires an experimental testbed where network researchers can experiment with new approaches to all levels of networking technology. The results of this research will enable networks capable of supporting scientific projects in fields such as high-energy nuclear physics and radio astronomy, which require real-time collaboration among scientists and manipulation of enormous data sets. Already, individual projects in these fields can usefully consume a majority of the largest network links available. Together, even a few of them could potentially overwhelm existing advanced research and education networks. And, these kind of bandwidth-hungry applications are spreading. Applications in almost every discipline are now emerging with the same need for big, broadband networks.

The second big development is the fortuitous availability of dark fiber in the United States and elsewhere as a result of the downturn in the telecommunications industry. The last four years have provided the research and education community a historic opportunity to migrate from leasing circuits from traditional telecommunications carriers to owning fiber outright. This fiber, combined with optical dense wave division multiplexing (DWDM) technology enables multiple R&E networks to be built and run over the same fiber pair. Taken together, fiber ownership and DWDM change the dynamics of deploying and managing dedicated research networks to support demanding scientific applications and large-scale network research. In short, we now have the components for owning and controlling a robust optical network infrastructure that will support multiple, disparate networks.

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Reference this article
Farber, D., West, T. "The National LambdaRail," CTWatch Quarterly, Volume 1, Number 2, May 2005. http://www.ctwatch.org/quarterly/articles/2005/05/national-lambdarail-cyberinfrastructure-for-tomorrows-research-and-education/

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