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The 20-Year History Behind Internet2

Internet2, the technology community devoted to advancing research and education, celebrates its 20th anniversary next month.

On Oct. 1, 1996, 34 university leaders gathered at the Chicago O'Hare Hilton in hopes of establishing networking capabilities to advance research in education and the global commercial internet. Out of that meeting grew Internet2, the backbone of America's research and education community.

Twenty years hence, Internet2 is providing a collaborative environment for 317 U.S. higher education institutions, 81 corporations, 64 affiliate and federal affiliate members, 43 regional and state education networks and more than 65 national research and education networking partners in 100-plus countries.

Internet2, however, didn't emerge a full-grown network overnight. It evolved out of a network initially created by the National Science Foundation — NSFNET — and researchers' desire to reclaim the high-speed capabilities they enjoyed before the internet was privatized.

A Crowded Superhighway

Internet2's story begins in 1985 when the NSF connected researchers and scientists to NSF-funded supercomputer centers across the country, which formed the NFSNET Backbone. Colleges and universities were eager to connect to theses center so their professors could share data and collaborate on national research projects. NSFNET also spurred activity at the regional level, resulting in the creation and formalization of a set of cooperatives that extended the NSF network to a significant number of institutions.

From the beginning, NSFNET leaders chose to use TCP/IP protocols rather than the dominant commercial networking protocols of the time (such as SN, IBM's proprietary networking protocol). "As the ecosystem of state and regional networks grew, there was an increasing interest among commercial research entities and other commercial companies to connect to this growing TCP/IP-based internet," noted David Lambert, president and CEO of Internet2.

With no other game in town, the NSF allowed commercial companies to connect to its network. At the time, hundreds of thousands of researchers, students and staff were accessing NSFNET from their campuses and homes. Eventually the raw Ethernet protocols and the raw TCP/IP protocol were pushed out of the universities beyond NSFNET. "NSFNET began actually providing those same network services in residential settings," said Lambert. The privatization of the internet was in full bloom.

State and regional networks started creating ISPs, like Northern Virginia-based UUNET. When NSFNET came under fire for providing internet service to private commercial companies, it began decommissioning its network in 1993. Commercial companies focused on building out a residential marketplace were commandeering the operations originally provided by the state and regional networks. "All of a sudden you had new actors – purely commercial actors like AOL – in the game. It became very competitive," recalled Lambert.

By 1994, researchers who once enjoyed the luxury of sending large files from one supercomputer to another with speed and ease started feeling the pressure commercial entities were exerting on the network as its performance diminished. "They were screaming at us to find another solution," said Lambert, who at the time was vice president for information technology at Cornell.

A series of meetings were arranged in 1996 that culminated in the momentous event at the O'Hare Hilton. "We decided to create an organizational vehicle to take control of providing advanced networking services and take responsibility for it ourselves," said Lambert.

Learn More

Internet2 has put together an interactive timeline of key moments in the research and education community. Find it on the Internet2 site here.

Thus, Internet2 was born.

Community and Collaboration

Internet2 has physical infrastructure for sure. But viewing Internet2 as a cluster of wires and servers would be short-sighted: Internet2 is as much about the human network it supports as its physical infrastructure. "Internet2 is its members," said Ana Hunsinger, vice president of community engagement for the organization. "With an eye to collaborative culture we design, build, operate and sustain our mission-critical differentiated technology solutions that can support the research and scholarship that happens at our universities," she explained. Internet2 members drive the organization.

Mark Askren, vice chancellor and CIO at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and vice president of IT for the University of Nebraska system, calls Internet2 a prime example of how universities can work together. While American colleges compete for students, faculty and grants, they still embrace a culture of collegiality, sharing information and helping each other. "We're all doing the same things. There are differences but the similarities are overwhelming. How can we do better together? Internet2 is the shining example of that," said Askren.   

Internet2 has two priorities. The first is the physical network. A few years ago, Internet2 partnered with its members to obtain funding from the U.S. Department of Commerce National Telecommunications and Information Administration's Broadband Technology Opportunities Program. "[The $62 million award] funded the next-generation networking, a significant uplift, that gave us the network that we have today," said Hunsinger.

Twenty years ago, Internet2 focused on connectivity, speed and reliability. It has since shifted its focus to trust and identity infrastructure, its second priority. "We need to secure not just our network but the data. We need to create the mechanisms for identity management in the best possible way," said Hunsinger.

Internet2 is not only improving the trust fabric, but also provides an integrated umbrella for campuses and service providers. With cluster computing and the Open Science Grid, which connects large numbers of processors though Internet2, researchers seldom know which servers are running their cycles. "Rather than a point-to-point environment in relationship, we need to literally be able to log in one time and get to trusted resources throughout the world. That's why identity management is so important," said Askren.

Global Research

Research universities are often measured by the grants they obtain and the global projects in which they participate. One of the University of Nebraska's shining moments came when it won a grant to be a tier 2 site for the Large Hadron Collider project based in Switzerland — because it's a member of Internet2. "You can imagine an environment before when you were constrained by the equipment you had and the environment you were directly connected to. Now with Open Science Grid, you're able to use this large, distributed environment and use open cycles and processors around the clock," said Askren.

The Hadron Collider project is divided among seven US universities. As a tier 2 site, Nebraska accepts data from the collider in Switzerland. "Literally there'd be gigabits at a time … coming to our campus. That was really important for Internet2 because when we got the grant and were accepted to be part of that really large project, we had to upgrade our network," said Askren. Nebraska needs to stay ahead of the curve, he said, in research and in infrastructure so it can continue to submit grant proposals. 

The Next 20 Years

Looking to the future, Lambert and Hunsinger think Internet2 will continue to play a key role in major science research projects like Cancer Moonshot, the Large Hadron Collider and LIGO (Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory). These massive research projects will be augmented by the need to connect. "Right now we connect a lot of people and data and systems to the network and there are going to be a lot of things that are going to be connected to these networks, like research instrumentation," said Lambert.

In the next 10 years, the research community will make significant networking demands — and it's imperative, said Lambert, that Internet2 stay one step ahead of these demands and create an effective strategy for securing systems and data. Currently Internet2 is designing its next upgrade, which will start in 2018. 

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