December 6, 2001
All-optical network sends data 10 to 100 times faster
By Howard Wolinsky, Business Reporter
Researchers here are launching the first real-world test of a screamingly fast all-optical data network that will enable such advances as doctors sending video images of a beating heart via light beams to distant centers for diagnosis.
Northwestern University's International Center for Advanced Internet Research, known as iCAIR, is working with SBC Communications Inc., parent of Ameritech, and Nortel Networks on the broadband network. It is an all-optical, or photonic, network called OMNInet and uses a 10-gigabit-per-second Ethernet protocol, 10 to 100 times faster than typical corporate networks.
"This is the first time ever that a 10-gigabit Ethernet has been developed as a prototype service," said Joe Mambretti, director of iCAIR. "We expect to take it to the world."
Previously, 10 gigs has been available only within corporate or university offices using the Ethernet protocol. But once data was moved outside the walls into the "metro" network serving a city, it would be slowed as it was transferred between optical and old-style electronic equipment.
"Industry is saying we need to make Ethernet available everywhere," said Al Safarikas, vice president of marketing with Toronto-based Nortel's metro and enterprise networks group. "OMNInet is absolutely key in testing advanced high-speed technology."
Research in the Northwestern lab has shown the new technology will work. Now, researchers will begin a six-month study looking at high-resolution streaming video to deliver full-screen, full-color, full-motion medical images to specialists at other locations in real time. Also, it will study next-generation 3D visualization for industrial design, large-scale data transfers and data mining for scientific and commercial use.
The locations are on Northwestern's campuses, in Evanston and downtown Chicago; the University of Illinois at Chicago, and in a "telco hotel," or center housing telecommunications equipment, near Printers Row. Other research partners include the Electronic Visualization Laboratory at UIC, Argonne National Laboratory and CANARIE, the Canadian national research network.
OMNInet speeds the data because it is an all-optical network, eliminating the electrical switches and relying on light switches to carry data.
After new 10-gigabit standards are approved next year, SBC plans to offer service at that speed, said Bob Walters, executive director of optical networking with SBC in Chicago. Currently, Ameritech's fastest service is 1 gigabit.
Walters expects the new technology to be adopted by large corporations wishing to link together data centers, such as for disaster recovery networks, and medical centers wishing to transfer huge files.
The new technology will enable companies to consolidate services and equipment, Safarikas said. Companies also will enjoy the flexibility of being able to deploy bandwidth for different applications, he said.
"They'll be able to crank it up or down as needed," he said. "It's a lot more cost-effective."
The all-optical networks are attractive to phone companies because they cost one-tenth as much as current systems to purchase and operate, he said. The systems cost less because they require less equipment to be installed.
Nortel and its competitors are racing to get ready for the expected adoption next year of new 10-gigabit standards for metro networks.
Safarikas said iCAIR, a leader in developing large-scale networks, has "been a great partner. We like to work with institutions on the cutting edge of technology."
Shaye Mandle, president of the Illinois Coalition, which promotes the state's high-tech economy, said, "With Motorola, Tellabs and Lucent, Illinois long has been on the leading edge for telecommunications. This work at Northwestern coming in highlights the intellectual capacity we have."
SBC and Nortel declined to say how much they are investing on the research.
Mambretti said eventually the new technology will trickle down to the home.
"This is the path of most technologies," he said. "This trial is the core of a new infrastructure. Think of this as building a superhighway. Once the highway is built, lots of residences will build access roads."
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