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June 1999

Networking in the post-Internet world: UCAR's plan

In the beginning was ARPANET, which evolved into NSFNET and then became the Internet. And its creators saw that it was good, but not good enough. Then private enterprise got into the act. Thus has the 'Net begotten a string of networking initiatives on the local, regional, and national levels.

How fast is fast? Shown here are the capabilities of various network components. Network speeds have increased phenomenally over the past decade. Abilene, the second-generation Internet, delivers data at 2.4 gigabits per second. That's about 50,000 times faster than a typical consumer modem connection.

How does UCAR fit into this story? In the early years of the 'Net, we served as a regional focal point for networking access. These days, with high-speed networking far more prevalent, we are becoming less of a linchpin and more of a facilitator. At the same time, the open field is leading to some interesting collaborations.

National research networks: Duking it out

The federal government transferred operation of the Internet to private industry in 1993. This stimulated the boom in electronic commerce now under way. Left in the lurch for awhile, though, were bandwidth-intensive users who had looked to the government to help create the next generation of high-speed networks suited to research.

Basil Irwin and Marla Meehl drafted the strategic plan that is now guiding UCAR's networking activities. (Photo by Carlye Calvin.)

There are now two high-performance national research networks: Abilene and the very high performance Backbone Network Service (vBNS). Both are angling for the attention of universities and labs across the country. "They serve an identical set of customers, basically," explains Basil Irwin (SCD Network Engineering and Technology Section, or NETS).

Abilene is the most prevalent label for a network originally conceived as Internet 2. The name evokes Abilene, Kansas, and its role at the edge of the transcontinental rail network that formed in the 1860s. Organizers of the Abilene network see it as having an analogous role at the front edge of the country's computing infrastructure for the next century.

Leading the charge for Abilene is a consortium with a name that will sound familiar. The University Corporation for Advanced Internet Development, or UCAID, is in fact patterned after UCAR as a nonprofit corporation governed by a consortium of North American universities. UCAID has quickly grown to include 175 institutions, including nearly 50 of UCAR's 63 members. "The universities are running the show," says Marla Meehl, head of NETS.

The Abilene network, also called Internet 2, bridges the nation and is already delivering data at 2.4 gigabits per second. Shown here are the connections as of January (solid lines) and the additions expected this year (dashed lines). (Illustration courtesy UCAID.)

For its national fiber backbone, Abilene is depending upon the kindness of Qwest. The Denver-based networking firm has loaned UCAID part of its new continental fiber-optic network. Over the five-year period the value of the loan is estimated at $500 million. "Qwest has several motivations," says Basil. "They've got such massive capacity that they could never commercialize it all anytime soon. By donating it, they bring attention to their name on a national level. Al Gore announced the donation from the steps of the White House."

After months of beta testing, Abilene introduced itself to the world in a grand opening on 24 February. At that point, 37 institutions were connected by 10,000 miles of Qwest fiber at speeds of 2.4 Gbps (gigabits per second). That's roughly 1,000 times faster than the access rates most universities have for commodity (commercial) Internet access. UCAID officials expect 70 of the members of UCAID, including a number of Colorado universities, to have signed on to Abilene by the end of 1999.

UCAR will join UCAID this October, says Basil. In the meantime, he adds, we are well served by the other second-generation U.S. research network: vBNS.

NCAR and the other NSF supercomputing centers are the original nodes on the vBNS, which was founded in the mid-1990s. The mission of the network has since been expanded to include 131 U.S. universities, 95 of which have been connected so far. NSF subsidizes the cost of these connections through direct funding of the vBNS as well as through High Performance Connection grants to individual schools. MCI WorldCom operates the network under NSF authority. Currently, the top speed on the vBNS backbone is 622 Mbps (megabits per second), soon to be raised to 2.4 Gbps. The vBNS is well suited to hard-core users who need to exchange gigabytes or even terabytes of data at a time.

More than 130 sites (including about 40 UCAR members) are eligible to join vBNS through the NSF grants. However, NSF has approved Abilene as an alternative to vBNS, so grant recipients can choose which of the two networks they prefer. Colorado State University, for example, decided to go with Abilene, and there are universities that are joining both, according to Basil.

There are question marks around the futures of vBNS and Abilene alike. The original vBNS charter expires in March 2000. "NSF has no plans to continue directly funding it. They've made up their minds," says Basil. MCI WorldCom has announced it will continue vBNS on its own but hasn't announced the rates it will charge. "If they set prices higher than Abilene, nobody will want it. Right now Abilene's prices are relatively low."

Originally built to connect NSF supercomputing hubs, vBNS also provides high-speed links to nearly 100 universities through the backbone outlined here. (Illustration courtesy vBNS.)

On the other hand, Abilene's existence hinges on its five-year infrastructure loan from Qwest. "I think UCAID hopes to do some more deals," says Basil. Competition now emerging in the networking world could open other doors even if Qwest decides not to renew its loan. Besides, he adds, "Nobody can predict what's going to happen to the communications industry in five years anyway."

Local initiatives: Stay tuned

Our connections to the national and international research world are vital, but UCAR has other partners to consider, such as our neighbors in town. Boulder's research environment has generated a partnership that will become our local ticket to better and more cost-effective networking.

That consortium is the Boulder Research and Administrative Network. Think of BRAN as a way to give Boulder some necessary fiber. The entities behind the consortium are UCAR, the U.S. Department of Commerce (DOC, including NOAA and the National Institute of Standards and Technology), the University of Colorado at Boulder, and the city of Boulder. These partners plan to build and operate a private fiber network, allowing them to communicate among themselves at warp speed and to inexpensively access local telecommunications. "BRAN is purely Boulder because we're so tightly packed with research organizations in one place," explains Marla.

NCAR associate director Walt Dabberdt and UCAR vice president for finance and administration Katy Schmoll have been working with administrators from the DOC, CU, and the city to iron out contractual issues. Negotiations are under way with a prospective contractor who's expected to begin about six months of construction work this summer. Meanwhile, a BRAN technical committee that includes Basil, Marla, and colleague Jim Van Dyke is working on design issues.

BRAN could be a physical reality by early 2000, says Basil, who adds, "There's no equipment in the thing. It's just dark fiber under the streets." Dark fiber is network cabling in its raw state before each partner has added equipment at the various endpoints. Commercial vendors such as U S West typically lease only "lit" (finished) rather than dark fiber, says Basil. With lit fiber, "the flexibility is limited and the expense is tremendous." For instance, the block-long connection between the main Foothills Lab and FL4 formerly cost about $50,000 per year to lease from U S West. After UCAR installed its own fiber between the buildings several years ago, our costs dropped to near zero.

The city of Boulder is a key member of the BRAN partnership because of the municipal rights-of-way it brings to the table as an in-kind contribution. "Without the city, this project couldn't be done," says Marla. Other members will be ponying up roughly $500,000 each for construction.

The planned underground network for BRAN will connect ML and FL with an intermediate loop linking us to CU, NIST, NOAA, and the city of Boulder. (Illustration courtesy SCD/NETS.)

UCAR's share of the network will be 28 out of 96 fibers, which will be available to increase connectivity between ML and FL and with our BRAN partners. SCD expects that our savings will exceed our costs for BRAN in less than a decade while increasing our bandwidth by several orders of magnitude.


Welcome to the 21st century, as seen by SCD

UCAR's strategic plan for networking is half guidebook and half cautionary tale. Prepared by Basil Irwin and Marla Meehl (SCD/NETS), A Strategic Plan for UCAR Networking: Welcome to the 21st Century was presented to UCAR administration in November. In writing the report, Basil and Marla worked closely with a subcommittee of the Network Coordination and Advisory Board, the primary vehicle for users to provide feedback on centrally located network services. The document earned Marla and Basil a nomination for administrative support in last year's UCAR Outstanding Performance Awards.

The report's five key recommendations:

  • Assure that the network cabling for all of UCAR is capable of supporting switched Fast Ethernet (100 Mbps) to all UCAR workspaces by the end of fiscal year 2000. (See main article.)

  • Before the end of FY 01, transition from Ethernet (10 Mbps) to switched Fast Ethernet (100 Mbps) as the standard network service available to all UCAR computers.

  • Renew one-third of all UCAR network equipment each year by replacement or by upgrade.

  • Renew the UCAR local area network (LAN) cabling plant by replacement every ten years or by upgrade when it is apparent that the cabling plant needs to be upgraded.

  • Continue to actively participate in metropolitan, regional, national, and international networking initiatives.

According to Basil, there's been no opposition to the upgrades he and Marla have recommended through the strategic plan. "UCAR management requested that we do the plan. They agreed with the precept that if we don't do it, we'll be hopelessly behind in terms of communication capabilities." •BH

A Strategic Plan for UCAR Networking: Welcome to the 21st Century can be found on the Web.

Even as projects like BRAN and Abilene help us connect to our university and laboratory colleagues, UCAR still needs an efficient way to connect to the Internet at large.

Once the 'Net was spun off to become a commercial venture in 1993, we began purchasing so commodity Internet access from MCI, now MCI WorldCom. Two years later we joined forces with other institutions to share access to the 'Net. This arrangement, called a gigapop, differs from BRAN in that it involves leased connections rather than fiber actually installed by the participants. "It's a consortium of users that find it financially advantageous to take their links to a common point and share links from that point to networks such as vBNS," says Basil. A gigapop uses bandwidth as efficiently as possible and carries more clout with vendors. Both these factors help save money for the gigapop's members.

A dozen institutions, including NCAR, formed the Front Range Gigapop in 1995. Colorado State University and the University of Colorado at Denver have now dropped out to form their own gigapop, based on a new Abilene link. Other universities may join them in time. "We're not really clear on NCAR's future role in this. We might join the Denver gigapop or we might choose not to," says Basil.

Meanwhile, back at the lab . . .

Visions of gigabits per second arriving at one's desktop won't become a reality at UCAR unless our internal connections keep pace with the outside world. Our networking plan (see sidebar) stresses the importance of keeping fiber-optic links up to date at each of UCAR's major sites.

The goal of rewiring is to allow Fast Ethernet speeds, roughly 100 Mbps, at each desktop. About 40% of UCAR--the Mesa Lab's A and C towers and the Jeffco site--was brought up to this standard during the last two years. The B tower in ML and FL1, 2 and 3 have been retrofitted to run at 10 Mbps. That speed won't cause noticeable problems for the time being, says Marla, but it still falls short of the 100 Mbps standard that the strategic plan advocates for the institution. "In any network," she notes, "the weakest link is what will slow you down."

Now under way is the FL4 Uniform Network Project (with its catchy acronym, FUN), which is scheduled to be done by the end of 1999. That leaves the Mesa Lab's B tower and the main FL complex on the drawing board. Plans are to complete that rewiring in 2000 at a projected cost of about $2 million. Details are now being worked out as part of the fiscal year 2000 budgeting process.

How long will it all last? Most of today's network cabling has an expected lifespan of about a decade, while other network equipment has a three-year expected lifetime. Technology is likely to outpace the hardware's useful life, so both cabling and equipment must be periodically replaced or upgraded. "It's difficult to recommend a specific replacement schedule," says Basil. "Instead, the cable plant should be replaced when it is apparent it needs replacing." •Bob Henson

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Edited by Bob Henson, bhenson@ucar.edu
Prepared for the Web by Jacque Marshall