The NGI and Internet2: Making the Grade in High-Performance Computing
- By Douglas E. Van Houweling
It's no secret that the Next Generation Internet (NGI) Initiative has big plans for research and education. A multi-agency federal research and development program, NGI is developing advanced networking technologies and revolutionary applications that today we can only imagine. With the potential to be hundreds, even thousands, of times faster than the Internet, the infrastructure developing under the NGI promises to dramatically alter the way we communicate, do business, share information, and learn.
As co-inventor and the first major user of today's Internet, the academic community is helping to drive this transformation in research and education. More than 170 universities, together with over 60 corporations and nearly three-dozen other organizations, have joined Internet2, a collaborative effort to support the development of Internet infrastructure, tools, and applications specifically for higher education. The University Corporation for Advanced Internet Development (UCAID) is the formal not-for-profit organization that is home to Internet2. Administered by UCAID, Internet2 is continuing its efforts to unlock the Internet's potential to enable advanced network applications and technology for research and education. Begun by 34 universities in October 1996, Internet2 and its members are enabling revolutionary advanced applications, fostering middleware, testing new network capabilities, deploying a high-performance network infrastructure, and encouraging technology transfer within higher education and to the global Internet. Internet2 is reaching these goals by recreating the partnership of academia, industry, and government that fostered the development of today's Internet.
Enabling advanced applications is a core challenge for Internet2. Higher education's dual research and education missions increasingly require close interaction among distributed teams, use of remote scientific instruments, and access to unique information resources. Advanced network applications will provide researchers, teachers, and students the means to accomplish these tasks in ways not possible using today's Internet. For instance, an astronomer can control and receive images from a telescope thousands of miles away as if she were at the observatory, or a doctor can teach medical students across the country by collaboratively navigating 3D anatomical images.
To meet this challenge, Internet2 members are working together in application areas—such as high-quality video—that are broadly applicable across various disciplines. Through the Internet2 Digital Video initiative and the Internet2 ResearchTV Working Group, members are exploring the advanced network technologies necessary to capture, access, and transmit video in qualities up to that of high-definition TV (HDTV). These capabilities will enable high-quality videoconferencing, on-demand high-definition video, and video-rich collaboration tools. At last October's Internet2 Member Meeting held in Seattle, faculty and students from Oklahoma University used better-than-TV-quality video to conduct a master violin lesson over the network while the instructor and student were separated by more than a thousand miles.
Internet2 is also focusing on specific disciplines that will benefit from the use of advanced network applications.
A newly launched initiative will bring Internet2 members together to tackle the challenges facing the deployment of advanced applications in the area of life sciences. Similar efforts are under way to develop virtual laboratories and digital libraries that will enable access to a number of unique resources over the network. One such effort aims to provide network access to the Shoah archives, a project of the Visual History Foundation that chronicles firsthand accounts of over 50,000 survivors, liberators, rescuers, and other eyewitnesses of the Holocaust on more than 100,000 hours of video.
In addition to their joint activities, individual Internet2 universities are supporting advanced applications development. To engage faculty and staff more broadly, Internet2 universities such as Indiana University (see Going for IT: Indiana University Leads with a Strategic Plan, page 16) are providing grants to faculty and staff to help fund the development of applications that require advanced networking. NYSERNET, an Internet2 affiliate member, has funded a program with regional scope, and 3Com and IBM, Internet2 corporate partners, have provided supporting grants for advanced applications at Internet2 universities across the country.
For advanced applications to be more easily and broadly usable, core middleware that meets the needs of higher education must be developed and deployed. Middleware, a layer of software between the network and applications, provides services such as identification, authentication, authorization, directories, and security. Standardized and interoperable middleware will make advanced network applications much easier to develop and use. The Internet2 Middleware Initiative is working to gather best practices in these areas within higher education. It is already distributing findings from the National Science Foundation-supported workshop called Early Harvest. This workshop brought together leaders from within higher education to help set initial directions for Internet2's work in middleware.
Building on the Early Harvest results, UCAID has brought together eleven Internet2 university campuses as Early Adopters to identify and implement middleware deployment approaches, including a strategic focus on the unique needs of medical schools. A group of leading campus information technology architects in the Middleware Architectural Committee for Education (MACE) provides broad technical and programmatic direction. Moreover, Internet2 is working in concert with key higher education organizations, including the Coalition for Networked Information (CNI), EDUCAUSE, and the Corporation for Research and Educational Networking (CREN) on public key infrastructure (PKI) components for security for higher education. Internet2 campuses have initiated pilot projects to use interoperable certificates. And Internet2 is working with industry partners to define the functional requirements for inter-institutional resource sharing, and to encourage the development of other tools to support such sharing within the U.S. and internationally.
Advanced Network Capabilities
Even though the raw capacity of commercial networks has increased enormously, end-to-end network performance on the Internet is still problematic.
Today's Internet applications, such as e-mail, the Web, and even streaming audio and video, must compensate for the Internet's inability to guarantee performance. As a result, advanced applications, which require reliable network performance, either do not work well or do not work at all on the commodity Internet. As a result, new network capabilities such as multicasting, quality of service (QoS), and IPv6 must be tested and deployed to ensure reliable end-to-end network performance.
To address these challenges, Internet2 has formed working groups and launched several initiatives in technologies needed to ensure reliable and efficient network performance. Scalable IP multicast is an important enabler of applications such as high-quality live video, video-conferencing, and software distribution. The Internet2 Multicast Working Group has developed a multicast architecture, which Internet2 backbone networks, gigaPoPs, and universities are now deploying. The Internet2 Routing Working Group is laboring to develop and deploy new techniques for complex routing environments. The Internet2 QBone initiative has produced an initial architecture for internetwork QoS, and is pioneering its deployment. Key components of this technology have already been tested by the Internet2 QBone participants, which include research networks around the world. The Internet2 Distributed Storage Infrastructure (I2-DSI) initiative is deploying hardware and services to ensure efficient distribution of content and services throughout an advanced network infrastructure.
High-Performance Network Infrastructure
Establishing a high-performance network infrastructure to support the advanced applications and technologies is another core challenge of Internet2. Since Internet2's inception, its university members, working with partners in industry and government, have taken large steps toward meeting this challenge. The very high performance Backbone Network Service (vBNS), which was established through a cooperative project of MCI Worldcom and the National Science Foundation, and Abilene, which was developed through a partnership among Qwest Communications, Cisco Systems, Nortel Networks, Indiana University, and UCAID, together form a persistent, interconnected, nationwide high-performance network environment for research and education. Today, over 150 Internet2 universities are connected to either Abilene, the vBNS, or both.
However, because advanced applications require end-to-end network performance, regional and local components of the high-performance network infrastructure are as important as national backbones. Internet2 members are leading nearly 30 regional networking consortia, or gigaPoPs. GigaPoPs are a successful and well-established part of the high-performance Internet and provide regional hubs of technical expertise as well as backbone network connections. They are also at the forefront of implementing advanced services such as multicast. In addition to providing high-performance network connectivity for universities and colleges, gigaPoPs often connect a wide variety of educational and research institutions to commodity Internet services and thereby provide a link to advanced networking for the broader higher education and networking communities.
National and regional investment is leveraged locally. As was true in the initial development of the Internet, the largest portion of this round network infrastructure activity is taking place on the campuses of universities and colleges. Institutions are investing in their own campuses to establish high-performance, to-the-desktop connectivity across campus. And, to connect improved campus networks, Interenet2 universities are upgrading their connections to national high-performance backbone networks.
From the beginning, it has been clear that a crucial measure of Internet2's success will be the extent to which the knowledge and experience gained benefits the broad higher education community and improves the commercial Internet. Corporate partner involvement in all aspects of Internet2 has already supported the deployment of new technologies such as QoS and multicasting in the next generation of commercial products. This transfer to the commercial Internet will continue as new applications, middleware, and network capabilities demonstrate their viability in the large-scale deployment being undertaken by Internet2 and its members.
Within higher education, Internet2 is actively engaging other organizations such as EDUCAUSE, CNI, and CREN. Internet2 has recently taken significant steps to enable the use of high-performance networking for collaboration among a broad range of organizations across the U.S. These changes will enable Internet2 member universities to collaborate with libraries, K-12 institutions, museums, and other organizations.
Working closely with the federal government's NGI initiative, Internet2 is actively reaching out to research and development efforts around the world. Research and education is an increasingly global endeavor; through international partnerships, Internet2 seeks to help ensure the interoperability of an advanced global Internet to support these activities.
The Road Ahead
The true promise of Internet2 lies beyond our ability to imagine. The lesson of the World Wide Web teaches us that new applications created through Internet2 may well be the ones that transform the way we work, live, and learn a decade from now. The mission of the Internet2 project is to help coordinate, motivate, and facilitate—to act as a catalyst—for the efforts of its members as they develop the Internet of tomorrow. Internet2 exists because its members believe that the long-term development of the Internet requires looking beyond the road immediately ahead and raising our collective vision to a new horizon.