Internet2 network poised for launch

Internet2, a project expected to help dramatically improve the Internet, will take a big leap forward this month with the launch in the US 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 fibre-optic cable looped between New York and Seattle. The network initially will link some 70 research institutions, operating at an impressive speed of 2.4Gbits per second.

Abilene is a key component of Internet2, an initiative led by more than 130 universities working with the US government and the IT 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 (QoS), or the ability to offer guaranteed service levels for critical applications.

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, DC, 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.

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.

IT companies involved in the effort say they won't hoard the fruits of their endeavours. Indeed, much of the intellectual property that comes out of the venture will be at least part-owned by the universities, which 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.

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 (vBNS), provided by the National Science Foundation (NSF) and MCI WorldCom which is also for use by universities and research institutions.

Abilene initially will link about 70 universities with a 2.4Gbps 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 fibre-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 organisations abroad, including Canada's Canarie, 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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