Changing Science At Light Speed; Superbroadband Gives Researchers Easy Data Access

Participants: Thomas A. DeFanti, Thomas Greene, Rick Stevens, Robert Grossman, Joe Mambretti, Aubrey Bush

Institutions: Northwestern University, Argonne National Laboratory, National Science Foundation

Chicago, IL

Increased cholera outbreaks in Bangladesh, it turns out, are correlated with the periodic rising water temperatures in the Pacific Ocean, the weather pattern called El Nino.

After reading a scientific paper that proposed such a connection, Robert Grossman downloaded climatic data from a computer managed by meteorologists in Colorado, and he accessed health statistics in a database maintained by the World Health Organization in Switzerland. Using information from the two databases, Grossman documented the connection between El Nino and Bangladesh cholera outbreaks.

“If you like working with numbers, you can use data to find relationships that help you make decisions,” said Grossman, director of advanced computing at the University of Illinois at Chicago. In a world where everything is connected, new networking technology may be our best hope to understand what’s going on around us. That’s the goal of Chicago-area computer scientists who are devising ultrafast superbroadband connections that they say will transform the way scientists do research and the way people do business. The current Internet, with origins as a medium of military and scientific communications a generation ago, is a document-based network, said Grossman. The new superbroadband network he envisions will be data-based, requiring optical networks that run at speeds thousands of times faster than today’s Web.

“We want to make the data alive,” said Grossman, who is also chairman of Magnify Inc., a Chicago-based data mining firm. “When you get data embedded in a document, it’s like getting a fax. You can’t go into a fax and change things or pull out individual items.” Getting access to databases that contain mountains of statistics requires extreme speeds. Today’s networks typically take hours to move 1 trillion bits of data, while advanced networks being built in Chicago move that much in a few minutes.

Several optical networks are already running, with more set to light up this year. The various networks cover different service areas, ranging from the Chicago metro region to overseas, and they all are interconnected in a building on Northwestern University’s Chicago campus. This is the nerve center for the next generation of superbroadband, and scientists can locate their equipment in Northwestern’s building to plug directly into the various supernetworks, said Joe Mambretti, director of Northwestern’s International Center for Advanced Internet Research. “Soon, we’ll have high-speed connections to the campuses and hospitals where researchers are located,“ Mambretti said.

A project of the City of Chicago called CivicNet will lay fiber to all the schools, libraries, and police and fire stations in the city, taking high-speed links into every neighborhood, Mambretti said. There will be extra fiber laid with the expectation that private operators will find a way to make broadband links available to residences. Superbroadband networks come at a critical time for researchers. New technology enables scientists to gather information at an ever- increasing pace, with the mapping of the human genome being the prime example. In biology and many other fields, the amount of data generated each year is as great as all the data previously available. “Data grows exponentially,” said Grossman, “but the number of people available who can look at it is constant. So almost none of it gets looked at, and discoveries go unfound.” Using a superfast data-based Web, scientists will make discoveries in new ways, he said. Instead of doing new experiments to test their ideas, many scientists will mine existing data to find valuable information already lurking there. Chicago area leads way

The Chicago region is at the forefront of building the necessary networks in part because of its history as a transportation crossroads, but also because of a local culture of cooperation among scientists here. Computer scientists at Northwestern, Argonne National Laboratory and the U. of I. campuses in Chicago and Urbana-Champaign have long worked with each other to advance networking technology. “Chicago is one of the few places in the country where people from different institutions and different disciplines work so closely as a team on infrastructure research,” said Aubrey Bush, director of advanced networking infrastructure research at the National Science Foundation, which funds much of work on supernetworks.

Local scientists have also tapped into state funding to get long- term leases on unused fiber, called dark fiber, that telecom carriers own. The computer scientists are using their own equipment to light the dark fiber and building networks that can carry up to 10 billion bits a second. These speeds, called 10 gigabits, link computers in different locations as tightly as if they were all components of a single computer. “When you’re connected at 10 gigabits, you’re exchanging information at the same speeds that occur within a computer,” said Thomas DeFanti, director of the software technology research center at UIC.

Hooking individual computers across North America and in foreign countries at these speeds to computer servers containing mountains of raw data will give scientists the ability to share their work and make discoveries. It will also provide people working for businesses the ability to get needed information more easily, said Grossman. By getting long-term leases on dark fiber, researchers not only get to design their own advanced networks, but they also get a huge discount because of a glut of available fiber, said DeFanti. “We can spend $30,000 to buy a segment of dark fiber for 20 years,” he said. “Spending $30,000 to buy that much bandwidth as a finished product from Ameritech would cover about three months.”

Setup is no easy task
There is much more to setting up superbroadband networks than merely linking lots of computers together with really big information pipes, said Rick Stevens, director of Argonne’s math and computer science center. “Networks are a shared resource,” said Stevens. “You have to allocate resources, reserving channel space for a certain use at a specific time. You have to be adaptive as conditions change.” Stevens is leading an effort to devise new protocols for advanced networks and to write software to make them work.

Computer researchers in Amsterdam have built a mirror facility to the one based at Northwestern and are connected to it. Because networks by their nature must be connected to operate, working with partners in Europe, Canada and California will speed the progress of developing ultrafast networks that are highly reliable, said Mambretti. Networking technology is poised to achieve leaps of speed that will surpass the computing rule of thumb, called Moore’s Law, that computer chips double their processing power every 18 months, said Thomas Greene, a senior program director for the National Science Foundation. “Network capabilities are changing twice as fast as Moore’s Law,” said Greene. “Moore’s Law has already penetrated into daily life, but people are only beginning to feel the impact of networking possibilities.”

Jon Van| Tribune staff reporter


Date: February 4, 2002

Related Entries



Related Categories