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National LambdaRail: the Advanced Optical Network

February 24, 2011 - 0 Comments

By Howard Baldwin, Contributing Columnist

It began as a way to link academic and research institutions throughout the United States, so that they could more easily communicate and collaborate on projects. In the beginning, it was limited to a small number of entities, all of whom thrived on the cutting edge of networking technology.

If that sounds like the early days of the Internet, it is. But it’s also an equally apt description of National LambdaRail (NLR), a 12,000-mile, $70 million optical network established in 2003. It uses 10-gigabit (Gb) transponders (with 40Gb and 100Gb in the roadmap) that allows bandwidth on demand for its academic and research members, now numbering more than 280.

The name comes from the term lambda networking, which uses multiple optical wavelengths to provide independent communications channels along a strand of fiber optic cable.

NLR is officially owned by a group of the regional optical networks, which provide its bandwidth more than 280 research universities and U.S. government laboratories. They use the bandwidth to conduct research in a variety of disciplines, ranging from atmospheric research, biomedicine, ecology, network science and physics, according to Kurt Snodgrass, Executive Director for NLR based in Norman, Oklahoma.

Collaborative Testbed for Advanced Research

Built with Cisco ONS 15400 optical networking systems at its core, the system links facilities in the major cities in the United States (its map actually resembles that of the U.S. interstate highway system).

Its goal, Snodgrass adds, is to give as close to unmitigated network bandwidth to researchers that need it. “If you are on the commodity Internet, you’re one of thousands of people accessing finite bandwidth. With NLR, we can dedicate 10Gb point-to-point bandwidth to every researcher,” says Snodgrass.

As an example, he cites the work of University of Oklahoma meteorology professor Kelvin K. Droegemeier, who has developed some advanced tornado prediction algorithms. He wanted to run his calculations at the Pittsburgh Supercomputing Center, but because his research contained so much data, he also needed considerable bandwidth to get it from Tulsa to Pittsburgh.

That’s where NLR came in. “With weather research, you only have data within certain windows of time,” says Snodgrass. “If it takes eight hours to run the data and the storm hits in four hours, it doesn’t do you any good. NLR made sure he wasn’t bridled by bandwidth congestion.”

As a result, researchers can reduce the time they need for predictions and get more granular in their predictions. That can in turn save lives. “If the weatherman says there’s going to be a tornado, and it never comes, people start ignoring the warnings. Professor Droegemeier wants to increase accuracy to reduce apathy.”

Diverse Ultra High-Speed Broadband Applications

But the NLR’s benefits aren’t limited to the public sector. By contracting with private sector companies, Snodgrass says, the research facilities gain valuable revenue, and its partners gain access to bandwidth they may only use infrequently.

For instance, the University of New Mexico has partnered with a Hollywood studio to provide computational cycles for rendering and animation.

In addition, NLR is augmenting collaboration among scientific researchers through multiple Cisco TelePresence links installed throughout the network to provide high-quality video interaction between locations. NLR has also established an interconnection between the NLR-operated Cisco TelePresence Exchange with the commercial global equivalent exchanges at AT&T and Tata Communications.

Could National LambdaRail become the basis for a next-generation Internet? Potentially, agrees Snodgrass. “The infrastructure is in place, and it could enhance and support broadband through underserved or rural areas. We have this artery in place, but the veins could reach a multitude of constituencies. The value comes from everyone’s ability to connect.”

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