Internet: The sequel

Internet: The sequelFed up with the congested Internet constantly barring your way or slowing you down? Well take heart US researchers and private companies say they are making progress on Internet2, a private high speed network which hopes to work at speeds 1,000 times faster than the current Internet. Tom Foremski reports  
  All hail a faster world… Internet2’s primary goal is to offer high speed communications between more than 100 university and research centres within the US. The aim is to provide data transfer speeds of 2.4Gbit/s or 1,000 times faster than the current Internet.
The Internet was originally developed more than twenty years ago as a US Department of Defense sponsored project that would link university and government research centres around the US. This eventually developed into the global Internet network that now has hundreds of millions of users around the world. Although the growth in the Internet’s popularity has been astounding, for US researchers, the Internet has become virtually un-usable for serious research work.
US supercomputer centres working on what are termed “grand challenges” incredibly complex computing projects, but are unable to use the slow Internet to share data. And other research projects are similarly constrained, unable to transmit and share huge quantities of data.
The problem is so bad that even President Clinton mentioned it in his State of the Union speech last year, pledging government support for Internet2 and pointing out that despite the wonder of the Internet, “It’s getting kind of clogged.”
In many ways, Internet2 is going back to its roots. It is being designed with the latest technologies in mind and its primary goal is to offer high speed communications between more than 100 university and research centres within the US with data transfer speeds of 2.4Gbit/s or 1,000 times faster than the current Internet.
Instead of funding the development of Internet2 solely from government funds, the private sector in the form of network communications and computer companies such as Cisco Systems, IBM, and other leading tech companies have been roped in to help. Cisco for example has kicked in $15m and other tech firms have also pledged large amounts. The pay-off will be some good publicity and also spin-off technologies that can be used to speed up the Internet.
Internet2 plans to be operational in 2000 and, as it is being built, it is also becoming a testing ground for advanced communications technologies. Last year at a technology demonstration in San Francisco, the $500m Abilene network – a key part of Internet2, was launched. This connects different parts of the Internet2 using high-speed communications technologies and large data storage systems.
“We are combining leading edge fibre technology with leading edge routing technology to produce the most advanced R&D network in the world and enable the most advanced applications,” said Abilene project director Terry Rogers. “We plan to build a network that pushes beyond commercially available technology.”
Internet2 participants have also demonstrated ways in which sharing data over the high speed network can link researchers in remote locations. Demonstrations included 3-brain mapping of a live brain, operating a scanning electron microscope remotely, upper atmospheric weather modelling and spectral microscopy data.
And in December of 1998, the Qbone initiative was launched, designed to offer advanced communications services in voice, video and what is called ‘teleimmersion’ combined with quality of service (QoS) technology that strives to guarantee specific levels of quality.
QoS is something which regular Internet users are after, and its successful implementation on Internet2 could offer spin-offs into the Internet. With QoS, users can specify what level of quality they are willing to pay for the transfer of key data. For example, in a videoconference transmitted over the Internet, the quality of the video and audio is determined by how much data can squeeze through at anytime, with periods of heavy Internet usage making such applications practically worthless.
But QoS prioritises data so that participants in a videoconference could pay extra to make sure their data arrives first no matter how bad the data congestion on the network.
“The QBone initiative will provide a means to test QoS in ways not possible on today’s commercial Internet,” said Ben Teitelbaum, chair of the Internet2 Quality of Service Working Group. “Successful QoS is crucial to enabling the advanced network applications envisioned by the Internet2 project.”
Organisations involved in the QBone project include the Abilene project, Carnegie Mellon University, the International Center for Advanced Internet Research consortium, NASA, the National Laboratory for Applied Network Research, Pittsburgh Supercomputing Center, Texas A&M University, and the universities of Massachusetts, Minnesota, and Pennsylvania.
Qbone also involves the National Science Foundation’s very high performance Backbone Network Service (vBNS) which has been developing QoS technologies with its Reserved Bandwidth service.
But Internet2 is not the only initiative aimed at offering a faster but private Internet network. There is also the Next Generation Internet (NGI) project which has similar goals to the university lead Internet2 but is being led by US government agencies such as the Department of Defense, the National Science Foundation and the Department of Energy.
NGI is a private network designed to provide government research centres with high speed connections, but there is considerable overlap with Internet2. In addition, NGI funds are being given to university members of Internet2 to develop advanced network applications.
US telecommunications companies are also building large high-speed networks that are part of the Internet, but will be used to provide faster data transmission services to corporations seeking similar benefits to those that Internet2 will provide.
But for the average Internet user, forced to endure the world wide wait, it may be as long as five years before the advanced communications technologies being tested and developed on Internet2 become widely available. And even with faster communications technologies, the Internet is still likely to suffer the same data congestion as more companies try to push digital video and other large bandwidth applications through the Internet.


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