Cornell joins national high-speed scientific computer network, expanding new fiber-optic 'railroad'

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ITHACA, N.Y. -- Cornell University has joined a nationwide consortium that owns and operates a fiber-optic networking infrastructure for scientific computer communication. The action, announced today (June 2), will provide the university's researchers with unprecedented high-speed connections and will allow other upstate New York institutions to invest in and join the system.

Cornell has pledged to contribute $1 million immediately to the consortium, National LambdaRail (NLR), and another $4 million over the next four years. The funding will enable NLR to extend its existing cross-country network of optical fiber to New York City. Cornell will complete the network by leasing fiber from Ithaca to New York City, also allowing more efficient collaboration between the Ithaca campus and the Weill Cornell Medical College in Manhattan.

"The trains don't come to Ithaca anymore, but this guarantees that there will be a stop in Ithaca on the new information railroad," said Cornell vice provost for research Robert Richardson, the F.R. Newman Professor of Physics. "I expect it to have a major impact on categories of Cornell research that depend on collaborations in which we exchange large quantities of data." Such research might include particle physics, astrophysics and biosystematics.

"We will be able to work with someone in San Diego as if we were all on the same local network," said Dave Vernon, director of information technology architecture at Cornell. The new connections should be up and running in about three months, he said. NLR will link to similar networks worldwide, he added.

NLR is a consortium of leading U.S. research universities and private-sector technology companies deploying a nationwide networking infrastructure to support research in science, engineering, health care and education, as well as the research and development of new Internet technologies, protocols, applications and services. Cornell will be its first member in the Northeast and will have a seat on the NLR board of directors, Richardson said.

It's expected that the New York State Education and Research Network, NYSERnet, and the New England Research Network, NERN, soon will become involved. Once the fiber pathway is in place, other upstate New York institutions will be able to join and are expected to contribute to Cornell's four-year pledge of $4 million to NLR, Vernon said.

The name of the consortium comes from the fact that physicists customarily use the Greek letter lambda to represent the wavelength of light. The NLR system initially will use four different wavelengths, each capable of carrying up to 10 billion bits of data per second. The system uses new technology called dense wave division multiplexing (DWDM), which has the potential to carry up to 40 such channels over one pair of optical fibers.

NLR represents a major step forward in research computer communication because it owns its "dark fiber" and owns and operates the hardware that "lights" the fiber with signals, rather than simply buying bandwidth on commercial networks. To extend the railroad analogy, up to now scientists have been packing their data in boxes and hiring a shipping company to load the boxes onto railroad cars and send them across country. Through NLR they will own the tracks, the trains and the depots. Ironically, this has become possible as a result of the dot-com "bust," which left many carriers with excess fiber capacity that they have put on the market at attractive prices.

Owning the fiber not only provides increased bandwidth, but also allows researchers to set up dedicated connections for research, including research aimed at improving network hardware and software. Among others, physicists will be able to monitor and control experiments on distant particle accelerators; astronomers will be able to receive massive amounts of data from radio telescopes like the Cornell-managed National Science Foundation Arecibo Observatory telescope in Puerto Rico; and biologists will be able to compare the entire genome sequence of an organism with corresponding sequences at other institutions. The network also will enable "grid computing" in which a problem is parallel-processed on high-performance computers in several locations.

"Experimental research needs dedicated bandwidth," Richardson said. "We want to do exciting research, and we know it's going to require a network. This makes possible research that people haven't even thought of yet."

Other new NLR members announced today include the Louisiana Board of Regents, the Oklahoma State Board of Regents, the Texas Lonestar Education and Research Network, the University of New Mexico and the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research. Founding members include the Corporation for Education Network Initiatives in California; Pacific Northwest GigaPop; the Pittsburgh Supercomputing Center, Duke University, representing a coalition of North Carolina Universities; the Mid-Atlantic Terascale Partnership and the Virginia Tech Foundation; Cisco Systems; Internet2; Florida LambdaRail; Georgia Institute of Technology; and the Committee on Institutional Cooperation.