Once Hog Butcher for the World, Chicago Becomes a City of Advanced Optical Networks

March 15, 2002

The Chronicle of Higher Education
By Florence Olsen

Chicago -- once hog butcher for the world, the nation's freight handler, city of the big shoulders -- is becoming a city of futuristic networks.

Academic researchers, politicians, and telecommunications executives have ambitions for making Chicago a major international hub for advanced laser-light networks. Researchers predict that such networks will be the workhorse technology for future generations of the Internet. "This technology is more like Internet5," says Joe Mambretti, director of the International Center for Advanced Internet Research at Northwestern University.

Since receiving $7.5-million in state financing to buy their own fiber-optic capacity, Chicago's research universities, along with the U.S. Energy Department's Argonne National Laboratory, have been busy building what Mr. Mambretti refers to as a "very, very broadband" international Internet exchange point called StarLight. The city also has an experimental metropolitan-area network, which uses the most advanced optical technologies to link its major research institutions.

The hub and the metropolitan network will be used exclusively for scientific research. But some Chicago researchers anticipate that optical networks will eventually transform the way not only scientists but also engineers and businessmen do their work.

When analyzing large amounts of data, says Robert L. Grossman, director of the Laboratory for Advanced Computing at the University of Illinois's Chicago campus, "having an optical network makes the difference between hours and seconds." Optical networks also offer up to 20 times more bandwidth at roughly the same cost as conventional network circuits.

Optical networks are fundamentally different from Abilene, the Internet2 backbone network, say researchers whose experiments are advancing knowledge of light-wave networks. Abilene is a network that scientists share with other researchers. By contrast, scientists will effectively own their own lightwave networks, just as today they own their research computers, says Bill St. Arnaud, senior director of network projects for Canarie, the Canadian high-speed network consortium.

Canada will soon be connecting two 10-gigabit-per-second lightwave networks into StarLight to support Canadian high-energy-physics researchers. The scientists require their own very fast connections to the Argonne laboratory, in Chicago, and to CERN, the European Particle Physics Laboratory, in Geneva. "It's largely for huge data-file transfers, and they need a dedicated light path for that," says Mr. St. Arnaud.

"Right now, networking is still very much like computing was in the 1960s -- it's a big carrier-managed service," says Mr. St. Arnaud. "Any time you want to make a change or you want to add bandwidth or you want to change where the circuit goes, you have to call up the telephone company, and they charge you and take a couple of weeks to make the changes."

Mr. St. Arnaud says scientists will be able lease lightwave networks at a one-time cost and manage them as assets that they will be able to reconfigure as necessary. A wavelength lease is referred to as an IRU, for "indefeasible right to use," and is usually for a period of about 20 years.

Several Chicago-based researchers -- among them Ian Foster, a senior scientist in the Mathematics and Computer Science Laboratory at Argonne -- are developing easy-to-use Web services for optical networks and for the clusters of computers connected to them. "We call it 'point-and-click provisioning,' where you actually use a graphical interface and set up [light] paths, and it takes minutes," says Tom DeFanti, a professor of computer science who is director of the Electronic Visualization Laboratory at the University of Illinois's Chicago campus.

With speeds of up to 10 gigabits per second, optical networks have become so fast that, for the first time that anyone can remember, even very fast computer processors cannot keep up with them, Mr. DeFanti says.

The relatively low cost of optical networks also has surprised some researchers, who are accustomed to paying much higher prices to carriers for conventional network circuits. Prices for conventional switching "have become noncompetitive," Mr. DeFanti says.

Mr. Grossman says he expects optical networks to make previously hard-to-obtain research data accessible online and easy to use. "What we can do is make it easier to get more data in less time in a form suitable for people to analyze it more easily." His research group is developing fast transport and file-transfer protocols for scientists who exchange data across optical networks. Traditional Internet protocols, he says, were not designed for the fast experimental networks that are being built today.

According to Mr. Grossman, optical networks make it possible for researchers to view, correlate, and visualize data that they have never before been able to examine or analyze. One result, he says, is a new model developed by a group of researchers who correlated cholera data from the World Health Organization with data about the climate phenomenon known as El Niño from the National Center for Atmospheric Research, in Boulder, Colo. The researchers discovered a pattern never before observed: spikes in cholera outbreaks in Brazil and Bangladesh 11 months after the beginning of El Niño events in the Pacific.

The payoff from optical networks may come in such scientific discoveries as the El Niño-cholera connection, discoveries Mr. Grossman says would be impossible without the speed and "fat pipes" that optical networks offer.

In addition to being the site of international exchange and regional research networks, the City of Chicago is spending $32-million a year for 10 years to build a high-speed, metropolitan optical network that will connect the city's firehouses, colleges, public schools, and government agencies, says Mr. Mambretti, who serves as a principal adviser for the city project. Abilene, the Internet2 backbone, is by no means the only advanced network, he says. "There's lots of great stuff happening in the regions," he adds, and especially so in Chicago.

Copyright © 2002 by The Chronicle of Higher Education

Last Updated: 18 February 2010