U to join high-speed computer network, will connect with other universities across the nation

Emily Kaiser

For researchers like Ernie Retzel, speed and convenience of computer networks across the country are essential.

Retzel, director of the biotechnology and bioinformation facility at the University, will soon be able to share research programs with universities nationwide through a new high-speed computer network that allows researchers to exchange more information and resources at approximately 66 times faster than current network speeds.

Next spring, the University will become part of the network known as the National LambdaRail network, an $80 million project that links universities by fiber-optic connections that follow major highways.

The network uses waves of light, called lambdas, to move data across the network. While the current University connection sends data at 600 megabits per second, the LambdaRail network will send data at 40 gigabits per second.

Paul Woodward, director for the University’s Laboratory for Computational Science and Engineering, said the high speeds of the network would allow him more flexibility while visually mapping three-dimensional objects in space.

Currently it takes two-and-a half months for Woodward to complete a run for his research in fluid dynamics, sending information to a computer program and waiting for the resulting images to return.

The LambdaRail network would complete a run in 10 days, he said.

“After you see the movie and think about it, you might realize it wasn’t the run you wanted to do,” Woodward said. “Well, that’s tough because you’ve just spent half-a-million of the taxpayers’ money and it’s too late by the time you see it.

“This way, you see it as it happens and if that isn’t the run you want, you can stop it and start another run.”

The LambdaRail network will also increase collaboration between researchers at universities nationwide.

Retzel said the biotechnology department is working on a genomics grid in collaboration with researchers in University of North Carolina.

Through the LambdaRail network, the research programs at universities such as North Carolina are more accessible, Retzel said.

“When you are working with a variety of plant genomes that have billions of base pairs, there are a lot of computations that need to be done and it’s pretty much impossible for local resources to do everything,” he said.

The network is scheduled to be done by next spring, said Gregory Jackson, member of the LambdaRail board and vice president and chief information officer for the University of Chicago.

“A lot of what LambdaRail has been doing is buying rights to fiber,” Jackson said. “We’ve acquired most of the fiber we need and are in the process of lighting it, so this isn’t a complete operating network just yet.”

The fiber-optic lines were put in place during the late 1990s along Interstate 94 to Chicago, which is a current LambdaRail connector point.

In September 2003, the University’s Board of Regents agreed to pay approximately $500,000 to join the network through July 2008.

Other universities in the Northern Tier Network Consortium, which stretches from Washington to Wisconsin, have created a plan to enable those schools to work together. The schools will spend $5 million during the next five years to be part of the network.

“One of the issues the schools want to come together and address as a part of this initiative is high-speed network capacity in this region,” said Steve Cawley, a Northern Tier executive committee member and the University’s chief information officer.

In the current plan, 16 of the 18 states in the upper West and Midwest have been left out of the network, but the Northern Tier Network Consortium is working to change that.

“As a major research institution, it is critical that we have access to the research network infrastructures nationally and internationally,” Cawley said. “It’s very important to the competitive position of our universities.”

Cawley said the project has moved along relatively quickly, and the first paths became operational in November 2003.

University researchers said they are eager to reap the benefits of the network.

The increase in network speed will allow the University to qualify for larger grants and “puts us in the game,” Woodward said.

Retzel also said the network will allow for more research advancements.

“It is truly an exciting environment,” Retzel said. “The technology keeps pushing the possibilities and forwarding what we need to be targeting as our goal.”