Bringing Optical Networking to the World

By By Stephanie Sides, Director of Communications, Calit2

September 19, 2005

Some call it “guerilla networking,” which it is in spades. Networking experts and applications scientists are showing up this week — several days before “showtime,” as they call it — to port their codes to machines in San Diego and connect to colleagues around the globe with more bandwidth than is likely to be available at their home institutions. They want to put on their best faces, of course, because the world is watching. We're talking about iGrid 2005, the biennial “Woodstock of Networking” workshop taking place Sept. 26-30 at at Calit2 in San Diego.

But some demos might not work the first time. The reason is because the scientists are pushing the limits to solve more complex problems at faster rates (100 Gbps to the rest of the world) over greater distances, assisted by the planet's most knowledgeable and daring networking engineers and computer scientists.

iGrid is a workshop, not a professional conference, so participants are not afraid of public failure. In fact, it's just the opposite, as many go on to win Land Speed and Bandwidth Challenge awards at subsequent conferences such as the annual Supercomputing conference. The point is: this is where the networking action is. That's why it's research. That's why it's called “state of the art.” But that's also why it's incredibly exciting.

Meanwhile, the lead iGrid network engineers are beyond busy, architecting and putting in place complicated network links across international domains to enable each demo to function at its highest capacity. They need to be mentioned by name because they are the magicians of the ether: Linda Winkler from Argonne National Laboratory and Alan Verlo from the Electronic Visualization Lab at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Larry Smarr, director of the California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology (Calit2) and official host of the event, calls iGrid the “Woodstock of Networking.” That might date him somewhat, he says, which is ironic for this visionary, but it does underscore the watershed impact this event is having.

Maxine Brown and Tom DeFanti, co-chairs of this event, conceived iGrid in 1998 after the U.S. National Science Foundation funded them to create STAR TAP, a persistent infrastructure to connect the world's research and education networks, and wanted to determine which meritorious applications used it. So, having spent years organizing the ACM SIGGRAPH conference, they turned their attention and skills to help shape the advanced networking community.

Over the last 10 years, Brown and DeFanti have been drawing together the international advanced networking community. Countries such as the Netherlands, Canada, Japan, China and Korea are key among the 20 countries planning to participate. While still small in absolute numbers, this community is growing.

The pioneers who saw the benefits of optical networking started meeting in 2001 in Amsterdam. At its 2003 meeting in Reykjavik, Iceland, this group gave itself a name — the Global Lambda Integrated Facility.

GLIF is a virtual organization of 100 institutions and organizations architecting a globally interconnected optical networking infrastructure to advance scientific research. Today's science is primarily computer-based (“e-science”) and is not restricted to geographical boundaries: researchers want to collaborate with worldwide colleagues, access data and share expensive instruments as though they were in the next room. Because of the intellectual communion between iGrid and GLIF, the latter will meet Sept. 29-30, overlapping iGrid.

So, what is it that compels hundreds of the world's networking and applications experts to do so much legwork on top of their “day jobs,” and then spend entire days and nights prior to the event preparing to demonstrate their work?

My guess is that they all love belonging to this community. After several years, they know and respect each other — and they see the exciting progress they're making, both individually and communally. It's an opportunity to work with the best and the brightest — their counterparts in other countries — to make a difference in a technical specialty that fascinates them. Who wouldn't want to be a part of that? Of course, the adrenaline they get every couple of years at iGrid isn't bad either. And then they sleep for days.

Nearly 50 demonstrations are planned that can be classified broadly into services of the following types: e-science, data, lambdas, remote instrumentation, supercomputing, video streaming and visualization. Most involve participation by multiple countries. These activities will be complemented by a parallel schedule of keynotes, panels and master classes.

At last count, more than 400 people were planning to attend. What they experience — including some of the unusual capabilities of the futuristic Calit2 building, such as a 100-million-pixel display wall, virtual reality environments and streaming high-definition video — should give them plenty to talk about.

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