Indiana University      Research & Creative Activity      September 1999 Volume XXII Number 2


by Scott Burns Kahler

A quick glance at any relevant highway map confirms the aptness of the slogan "The Crossroads of America" for Indiana--and especially Indianapolis. Less obvious, but increasingly well known, is Indiana University's position at a vital crossroads on the Information Superhighway. In recent years, IU has become a national leader in advanced, high-performance computer networking for research and education. The university's role in helping to run two major networks--Abilene and TransPAC, both of which have their operations centers at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis--has helped put IU on the map in a new, virtual geography.

Gateway to a New Frontier

At the point where the Chisholm Trail met railroads heading west, Abilene, Kansas, became a gateway to the future of the old American frontier. The new Abilene, named after that nineteenth-century boomtown, is the world's most advanced network for research and education. As such, it promises to open the way into yet another new frontier--the one being shaped by pioneering efforts in high-performance networking.

Internet2 is an effort by more than 150 U.S. universities--along with industry leaders, federal agencies, and research centers--to develop a more advanced Internet. To meet the rapidly expanding requirements of higher education, Internet2 also encourages and works to foster the development of a new family of advanced applications based on broadband networks, media integration, interactivity, and real time collaboration.

In August 1998, the University Corporation for Advanced Internet Development (UCAID) chose IU to house and manage the network operations center for Abilene. Competition for the center was stiff, but an existing infrastructure for advanced networking and a first-rate team of experienced network engineers were two of the considerations that persuaded UCAID officials to pick IU. Enthusiastic backing from Indiana Governor Frank O'Bannon and Commissioner for Higher Education Stan Jones also helped make the case.

Abilene, a project of UCAID, was developed through access to a nationwide fiber-optic network provided by Qwest Communications, as well as through technologies supplied by Cisco Systems and Nortel Networks. Abilene supports the objectives of Internet2, another UCAID project, which involves more than 150 U.S. universities working with industry and government to create a more advanced Internet. To this end, Abilene offers networking capabilities and expanded resources for leading-edge work related to virtual laboratories, digital libraries, distance education, and more. Some of the advanced applications that can be run on Abilene, with its ability to transmit more than two gigabits of data per second, include

Abilene also helps support the needs of UCAID's members with connections to an international community of high-performance research and education networks, currently including systems in Canada, the Netherlands, and Scandinavia. The Abilene partners expect this diverse networking environment to stimulate the networking industry to make more rapid developments in production and then to commercialize the results more widely.The extensive system of fiber-optic cable, routers, switches, and other Internet technologies that make this advanced work possible is monitored through the Abilene Network operations center, located in the University Library at IUPUI. The staff members in this facility, built for managing IUPUI's campus network and IU's statewide networking infrastructure--and still serving in this capacity--oversee the gamut of Abilene's physical and operational aspects. They ensure the day-to-day functioning of the network by

For example, if an on-duty operator should notice a delay or interruption at some point on the network, he or she will report the problem to an in-house network technician or engineer, who will typically be able to remedy the situation. Occasionally, the center may have to notify Qwest or Cisco--if the glitch seems to be caused by the fiber circuits or the routing hardware--and these companies will then dispatch engineers to address the problem. Usually, four staff members, with duties spread across operational, engineering, and applications services, are on hand at the center during the day. At night, a smaller contingent is present--with a network engineer on call--because the facility must be up and running twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week.

Beyond Old Boundaries

Abilene is not the only virtual superhighway with a presence in Indianapolis. A new connection to the Asian Pacific Rim through what Vice President Al Gore has called "a high-speed global information infrastructure" has its operations center there as well. IU and the Asia Pacific Advanced Network consortium have developed this connection, called TransPAC, between high-performance research and education networks in the United States, such as Abilene, and a similar network in Japan, Korea, Singapore, and Australia.

In late January, the Abilene Network established coast-to-coast connectivity for participating members, completing an important step in the development of Internet2. Abilene is a project of the University Corporation for Advanced Internet Development, developed in partnership with Qwest Communications, Cisco Systems, Nortel Networks, and Indiana University.

TransPAC crosses old boundaries of geography to provide IU and other U.S. institutions with convenient, high-bandwidth access to more than forty research and educational institutions in the Asia Pacific. An international, fiber-optic Autobahn for digital communications, TransPAC is able to transmit seventy megabits of data per second. At this speed, the world's longest research connection can deliver the equivalent of an entire multimedia encyclopedia in less than two minutes. This connection is able to support collaborations among researchers in a variety of disciplines, including astronomy, computational science, high-energy physics, medicine, meteorology, molecular biology, and visualization. Examples of work currently using TransPAC, some of which involve IU, include

Made possible with grants of $10 million each from the National Science Foundation and the Japan Science and Technology Corporation, TransPAC is expected to enable some $200 million of research over a five-year period.

The network operations center for the U.S. circuit of TransPAC is located with Abilene's center at IUPUI. Kokusai Denshin Denwa, the Japanese telecommunications carrier that along with AT&T provided TransPAC's main networking infrastructure, manages a sister facility in Tokyo for the Asia Pacific circuit. At IUPUI, the TransPAC and Abilene centers function very similarly--with staff members' responsibilities often covering both networks.


Advancing on the Open Road

IU's advanced networking infrastructure already provides a virtual environment for interactive teaching and learning through videoconferencing and Internet-based instruction. The Virtual Indiana Classroom, which has been a resource for distance learning since 1994, enables students, staff, and faculty to connect via two-way audio and video from locations across the state. A newer development, Oncourse, offers a comprehensive Internet-based course environment that teachers and students can access from campus technology centers, their homes, or any other place from which they can connect to the IU network. Now, with its involvement in networks such as Abilene and TransPAC, IU can take advantage of virtual proximity on an even larger scale. Fast and reliable research and education networks make distance learning and educational collaboration not only possible, but also more convenient, across an ever increasing geographic range.

In most cases, a campus network connection already gives each member of the IU community access to Abilene, TransPAC, and other research and education networks to which they link. Information sent to a colleague at another institution on one of these advanced networks simply gets routed over a special, high-bandwidth connection- bypassing the often-congested commercial Internet. This way, students, staff, and faculty enjoy ready access to resources for developing and supporting advanced research and educational applications.

Recently, IU launched the High Performance Network Application Program, which made $500,000 available for supporting the development of advanced applications. This initiative, coordinated through the Office of the Vice President for Information Technology, should be a boon to the creation of applications in disciplines ranging from business and the creative arts to chemistry, engineering, and the health sciences. IU's digital music library, VARIATIONS, serves as one example of the kind of application the initiative may help to foster. Another is the School of Music's endeavor to establish a two-way, fully interactive instructional link with the Royal Academy of Music in London. Besides delivering educational services and interactive, distributed instruction, applications funded by the program may involve

The applications whose development stems from IU's place on the map of high performance networking may include any combination of these seemingly futuristic possibilities.

Just as Indianapolis has made the most of its position at the crossroads of a network for geographic travel, so IU plans to do the same in its prime location on the Information Superhighway. With a history of helping students, staff, and faculty through the crossroads and along the paths of educational and professional growth, IU is now preparing to assist these travelers as they make their way through the geography of a new, virtual landscape: the frontier of advanced, high-performance networking.

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