A Super-Fast Link to Cyberspace

Utah Science, Economy See Benefit in Fiber-Optic Network

May 31, 2006 – The University of Utah and potentially all of Utah\’s colleges, schools, libraries and state agencies, have gained a new, ultrahigh-speed, $1.25 million connection to cyberspace: a national fiber-optic network named National LambdaRail.

Data are transmitted over this connection at 10 gigabits (10 billion bits of data) per second. That makes it 156,250 times faster than the fastest phone dialup connection, 10,000 times faster than cable modems serving home computers, 100 times faster than many university office computer connections and 16 times faster than the University of Utah\”s link to the experimental Internet2 Abilene network.

And Utah’s connection to National LambdaRail (NLR) – named for the fact that it carries different streams of data on different wavelengths or \”lambdas” of light – will become four times faster – 40 gigabits per second – when the demand arises.

“This is the network of the future,” says Stephen Hess, associate vice president for information technology at the University of Utah. “This is what the Internet eventually will become.”

The hookup to National LambdaRail will make it easier for Utah’s university researchers to collaborate with colleagues nationally by sharing huge amounts of data. It also will let them connect directly to remote scientific instruments such as the Telescope Array cosmic ray observatory now under construction in the desert west of Delta, Utah.

“Our participation in the National LambdaRail network benefits Utah research with state-of-the-art network performance and flexibility,” Hess says. “It fosters collaboration, enabling Utah scientists and engineers to join in experiments that span multiple institutions in Utah and throughout the nation.”

It also should bolster Utah’s economy.

“When you have broadband connectivity, economic development seems to follow because you also can share that research information with business,” says Hess. “Innovation is speeded up and more can participate. States are investing in high-speed networks to enhance their competitiveness to attract research and to foster new products and services.”

$1.25 Million to Make the Connection

Initially, the primary users of the new network connection will be researchers at the University of Utah who need to transmit huge volumes of data to colleagues at other schools. Utah State University researchers eventually will be next to use the connection.

But the link to National LambdaRail provides all Utah universities, colleges, schools, libraries and state agencies with the additional potential bandwidth. That is because they all belong to the Utah Education Network (UEN), which is operated by the University of Utah. UEN already serves as a hub connecting regular or “commodity” Internet service to Utah’s universities, colleges, schools and libraries. It also provides the connection to Internet2 and, now, to the National LambdaRail network.

Utah Education Network personnel have spent recent weeks testing the connection to National LambdaRail, and regular use began this month.

For now, only the University of Utah is using the experimental network, but “we will work with other institutions if they want to participate,” says Hess.

He says it remains to be determined how other universities and colleges will pay connection and use costs; it could be a combination of use fees and perhaps legislative appropriations.

National LambdaRail is run by a consortium of major U.S. research universities and private technology companies. NLR owns or leases the fiber-optic cable, then uses about 80 different colors of light, or “lambdas,” to transmit data through the individual fibers running side-by-side within the cable. Each color serves as a single data conduit within one fiber, says Kevin Taylor, director of planning and policy in the University of Utah Office of Information Technology.

Instead of paying the normal $5 million membership fee to join the National LambdaRail consortium, the University of Utah and UEN are spending $1 million over the next five years to join an existing member named the Front Range GigaPoP, a coalition of Colorado universities and research institutions, Hess says.

It cost another $250,000 for the necessary switches and routers, and to purchase “dark” or unused fiber-optic cable. The fiber-optic cable links UEN at the University of Utah’s Eccles Broadcast Center to the nearest National LambdaRail hub or “node,” which is at Level 3 Communications near Salt Lake City International Airport.

From Level 3, the network’s fiber-optic cable, which already was in place, runs to Ogden, then along railway right-of-ways to Denver.

A Step toward a Comprehensive Cyberinfrastructure

Except for researchers, most computer users will not even know when they are using National LambdaRail (NLR).

“A user needs to do nothing different than normal,” says Barry Bryson, associate director at UEN. “If the route is better through the NLR, the network connection will go through the NLR [rather than the other Internet connections]. No special hardware, software, configuration or setup is required.”

Taylor and Hess say National LambdaRail’s ability to transmit more information more quickly aids researchers in meteorology, seismology, genetics, health research, high-performance computing, astronomy, satellite sensing and other fields that involve large volumes of data, including video files.

“You can’t do research now that is so computing-intensive and share that with other research centers around the country unless you are connected to a large network like this,” Hess says. “A major issue for the University of Utah is medical imaging – scans of the brain, [computer] simulations of the brain. All of these are enormously large files and require substantial networks to connect with other research centers around the country that are studying the brain.”

“This new type of connectivity provided by NLR – especially when coupled with Internet2 and its Abilene network – represents a significant advance in our ability to support data-intensive, scientific collaboration among our faculty and their research partners around the country,” says Chris Johnson, a distinguished professor of computer science and director of the University of Utah’s Scientific Computing and Imaging Institute. “We view this as a key, early step in the development of a new comprehensive cyberinfrastructure that will enable new forms of scientific research in areas with direct benefit to Utahns: biomedical simulation and visualization, and medical imaging among others.”

Hess says a home with broadband connectivity will increasingly be able to access multimedia library materials, online multimedia college courses, research information, video on demand and other information the university obtains via National LambdaRail.

Internet2 and National LambdaRail are now in merger talks. Hess says: “Being an early member of National LambdaRail will give the University of Utah an opportunity to be a permanent node on any merged network of the future.”

The Utah Education Network (UEN) is an award-winning consortium of higher and public education, libraries, state government and business. UEN’s high speed data network connects Utah colleges and universities as well as the state’s school districts and libraries. UEN services benefit more than 750,000 school and college students throughout the state.

Media Contacts For This Story

associate vice president for information technology
Office Phone: 801-581-6180
Email address: shess@media.utah.edu