by David Hyland

Although it’s touted as the Internet of the next generation, Vice President Al Gore proclaimed Tuesday that the powerful network called Internet 2 is on the cusp of reality.
Gore formally unveiled the Internet 2 project during a White House press conference. Gore also announced that three U.S. companies have pledged a total of $500 million to speed up the development of the network. Thus far, the development of the Internet 2 was spearheaded by more than 122 universities.
“The Internet is revolutionizing our lives, every aspect of our lives,” Gore said. “It is connecting people together and opening new avenues of communications, commerce and learning.”
The announcement coincides with three major meetings for the project’s major players that are being held this week.
Though new fiber optic cables will be laid for the project, much of the network’s links will rely on the original Internet’s established connections. University researchers will be the network’s only users at first, with the possibility of allowing corporate scientists on later.
Despite Tuesday’s high profile endorsement, the University is wrestling with how to communicate the existence of Internet 2 to the majority of researchers on campus.
Once fully operational, Gore said Internet 2 will have the capacity for researchers to transmit information comparable to the entire 30-volume set of the Encyclopedia Britannica in one second.
The network would also allow for significant technological advances that will both benefit networking science and eventually improve the original Internet with new technology.
Technologies like video conferencing would allow easy communication between researchers or could be used to deliver seminars to remote sites.
The improved communications might also allow scientists to control instruments, like telescopes or robots exploring underwater, from a distance.
At the University, researchers are already using the skeleton network of the Internet 2 and its capabilities.
Ernie Retzel, interim director of academic computing and bioinformetics at the Academic Health Center, and his group of about 15 researchers are creating a database of plant genetics to be used on the new network.
Retzel said his group often collaborates with researchers at other universities like North Carolina State, Cornell and the University of California–Irvine.
“Most of what my group does is computational work,” Retzel said. “But we require biological data that’s generated at other sites, so we need to talk.”
Before, Retzel said use of ordinary Internet databases was very difficult. Researchers often had to resort to e-mail, letters or overnight packages to correspond with colleagues.
He said he hopes Internet 2 will make getting information from New York as easy as getting it from St. Paul.
By the end of the year, Retzel said his group plans to have established a collective database of genetic information with other universities, allowing them to cooperate and share their findings as they each tackle different aspects.
“It will change everything,” Retzel said. “As we begin to really make use of these technologies, it will change very much the way we do our science.”
Astronomy professor Paul Woodward has also been on the pulse of Internet 2 development at the University.
Using a PowerWall, a high-resolution video screen that stretches from floor to ceiling, he has been able to visualize the movement of heat beneath the surface of the Sun or red giant stars using information gathered from other labs around the country.
Woodward said the network has had a dramatic impact on his work by speeding up the pace of interaction.
“We do a lot of computing on other people’s computers, so we do work in collaboration with scientists at other universities and government labs,” he said.
Tom Barron, manager in Networking and Telecommunications Services and technical leader in the University’s Internet 2 project, said the new network will ease communication for investigators and save valuable research time.
With much of the basic installation complete, University Chief Information Officer Don Riley said the University’s priorities currently center on making faculty and researchers aware of the network and its potential benefits.
Barron said while the University originally wanted to get the “plumbing in and get it to a few key people,” they now want to coordinate with researchers who collaborate with private corporations or universities.
“We want to get the message out to them that this network is here and we want to get service to their part of campus so they can do it and make use of it,” Barron said.
Genetics and cell biology professor Michael O’Connor said he had never heard of the Internet 2 project but the idea does intrigue his interest.
“It sounds on the surface like it would be something quite useful since we often tap into many of the large government databases,” O’Connor said. “Anything to make it go faster is great.”
For his research, O’Connor uses government genome databases as well as information on fruit flies from Harvard University and Indiana University. He said he often waits up to 20 minutes to gain access.
O’Connor said he believes researchers would be willing to use Internet 2, so long as the new applications are as user-friendly as Netscape or other World Wide Web browsers.
Retzel said while most faculty remain in the dark about the project, the University need only show the benefits to get researchers to sit up and listen.
“When you start to show how we can apply this,” he said, “it will start to pick up steam.”
Riley, also an associate vice president, added the University intends to keep in touch with researchers’ progress as use of Internet 2 increases.
“Our job is to try to keep up with the faculty’s needs for research and infrastructure to support research and teaching,” he said. “Now it really depends on how the faculty can utilize it.”