Wanted: Fast work

We're playing intellectual catch-up with the rest of the world, say the proponents of the country's next-generation internet. We're already behind and we need fast action if we have any chance of becoming a true knowledge economy. David Watson reports.

We’re playing intellectual catch-up with the rest of the world, say the proponents of the country’s next-generation internet. We’re already behind and we need fast action if we have any chance of becoming a true knowledge economy.

AgResearch IT manager Phillip Lindsay says a next-generation national data network would be helpful now — and essential in the near future.

“We could use it to our advantage today, but in one to two years, that level of facility will be critical to the nation’s research and development and our ability to compete on the world stage.”

Unlike a clutch of other Western nations, New Zealand doesn’t yet have its own next-generation network, a new internet which could deliver blistering speeds topping 40Gbit/s, though plans to secure the cash for it and get it going are well under way.

So how would AgResearch use such a network?

“The main area we see benefits from is supporting our research around molecular biology,” says Lindsay. “The databases that are evolving in that area are getting very large and there is a requirement to be up to date with them on a real-time basis; if a research organisation like us is creating new informatics, we need to know if it’s in the public domain.”

AgResearch could also use a next-generation network to harness the benefits of grid computing (large groups of disparate computers co-working on a single problem), he says. “We would need to be able to harness research across a wider environment than just our own.”

One application an NGI (next-generation internet) network would enable AgResearch to take advantage of is homology searches — that is, searches of public databases for gene patterns.

The ability of New Zealand research organisations to partner and collaborate with others around the world is becoming more critical, he says. “We can’t do it on our own, we don’t have the resources.”

Now that creating partnerships is crucial, good quality video-conferencing will be vital, Lindsay says.

“To be able to do it in an IP environment with wide connectivity and good bandwidth [would be good]. At present, we use IP internally and ISDN externally.”

Finding a business model to effectively run the network will be harder than building the network, he says.

“In terms of prioritisation of traffic and level of service guarantees, it will be a substantial challenge; my personal view is that they represent a bigger challenge.”

This next-generation net promises speeds an order of magnitude greater than those of today’s public internet, but is at the same stage the today’s internet was 20 years ago — some tertiary institutes and government agencies are using it, but it’s definitely not available to the home user wanting to by-pass dial-up and DSL.

It probably won’t be in the immediate future, either — the groups working on the next generation net are looking at keeping it to themselves and while the private sector, including Cisco Systems and IBM, is involved in research and development, many of the network owners and operators forbid commercial traffic.

Lindsay is totally opposed to many overseas networks’ policy of not allowing commercial traffic. He doesn’t believe it’s possible to make a clear distinction between commercial and non-commercial activity.

“It’s naive to say you can separate them.”

He suggests the difference is further blurred here. “If you look at New Zealand universities and crown research organisations, the majority have a strong commercial focus.”

Lindsay says for AgResearch, using the network for a videoconference between lawyers discussing intellectual property issues would be as important as using it “to extract a terabyte of information about genetic sequencing for a joint research project”.

AgResearch will be “contributing to the next stage” of the NGI initiative, he says.

Embrace and extend

The first generation of the internet was developed in the 1960s and 70s in the halls of academia and the secretive world of the US Defence Department.

Today, it is part of everyday life and it seems impossible to imagine the world functioning without it.

The next generation of the internet is up and running at American universities and government institutes, under the guise of Internet2, a 200-member consortium, and NGI, a government project.

What those networks have in common is connections with minimum speeds of more than 100Mbit/s and maximums of 2.5, 10 and even 40Gbit/s.

Similar networks are running in other parts of the world, including Europe, where the GEANT network links similar institutes, and networks in individual countries such as Britain, which has a network called SuperJANET4 that links 800 tertiary institutes.

Australia has several next-generation internet networks, including AARNet (Australian Academic and Research Network) and CeNTIE (Centre for Networking Technologies for the Information Economy).

Just as the present internet is a network of networks, so is the next generation one — peering arrangements connecting sites throughout the world.

The Internet2 consortium, comprising representatives from government, telcos, networking companies, research organisations and other potential users, says Internet2 will not replace the internet. “It brings together institutions and resources from academia, industry and government to develop new technologies and capabilities that can then be deployed in the global internet.

“Rather than actually building the next version of the internet, Internet2 researchers hope to develop technologies and techniques that can later be applied to the public network by private enterprise and government.” Hence the private funding of Internet2 in the US.

To join the Internet2 consortium, you have to stump up at least $US500,000, most of which will go towards upgrading your institution’s local network to equip it with the right gear to handle next-generation internet speeds and applications.

As well as tertiary institutions and government research organisations, the film and biotech industries are obvious candidates for commercial use of such networks.

Not just expensive toys

So what are these super networks being used for?

Networked virtual reality, also called teleimmersion, is one application. In the US, a three-dimensional, life-size virtual office has been created, including walls and furniture.

More down-to-earth applications include multimedia digital libraries, to replace the physical, book-filled kind, and access grids, enhanced videoconferencing facilities that allow far more than the present limit of four sites to be connected at the same time.

Access grids also allow participants to incorporate material from laptop computers into a conference. They are in operation as close as Australia, at Sydney University’s VisLab and Townsville’s James Cook University.

Biomedicine is another obvious application and biomedical images and research are already speeding over next generation networks in the US, where BRIN (the Biomedical Informatics Research Network) enables participating institutions to exchange information on genetics, brain diseases and other medical matters.

Manipulation of virtual and real objects from thousands of kilometres away is one of the most exciting possibilities of the next-generation net. The potential is huge, with existing applications including astronomers remotely gathering data from Hawaii’s Gemini observatory, though for security reasons this is done via instructions with Gemini staff rather than directly by astronomers in the continental US.

Other than this, a technique called nanomanipulation is allowing tiny microscopic objects to be worked on remotely, via modelling software — an example is work on fibrin fibres, 50 nanometres high, at the University of North Carolina.

Most overseas next-generation networks keep commercial traffic strictly at arm’s length, but the New Zealand proposal seeks to allow it, subject to stopping it going out to overseas networks we peer with.


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