NCREN Boosts Bandwidth

By Nicole Hemsoth

February 3, 2006

A four-year, $15 million project to enhance North Carolina’s statewide Research and Education Network (NCREN) has been completed, providing faster and more reliable services to all of the University of North Carolina’s 16 universities, many private universities and colleges, state government, and other nonprofit institutions throughout North Carolina.

The project, called NCREN 3, builds upon North Carolina’s nationally renowned advanced network collaboration. NCREN is a collaborative effort among universities, the UNC General Administration, the state of North Carolina, and MCNC, and is operated by MCNC.

NCREN provides high-speed Internet, video, audio, and data center services in addition to access to national research networks, including Internet2 and National LamdaRail. NCREN services support multiple activities at each campus, including research, high-performance computing, distance learning, classroom education, administrative services and extension services.

NCREN 3 enhancements provide a minimum network bandwidth of 1 billion bits per second (1 gigabit) at every North Carolina public university, with higher bandwidth up to 10 gigabits serving the state’s largest research universities at UNC Chapel Hill, N.C. State University and Duke University. Through the NCREN 3 project, network capabilities throughout the state are approximately 20 times faster than when the project was initiated in 2001, and more than 600 times faster than typical network connections (T-1 access line) provided by commercial providers to businesses.

High-speed network services are essential for education collaboration and computing-intensive research. Advances in computing are enabling new frontiers of research. Large-scale research, often called e-science, typically involve teams of scientists and scientific equipment from multiple geographic locations. Networks linking these locations can enable the transfer of massive amounts of data, remote visualization of results and remote access to scientific equipment. A robust network infrastructure is often required to make the project possible. NCREN enables collaboration among all North Carolina universities and, through access to national research networks, with universities and other institutions across the nation and world.

“Together with our partners across the higher education institutions in the state, we take a great deal of pride in this accomplishment,” said MCNC Chief Executive Officer John Crites. “The NCREN3 Project was primarily funded by MCNC and is an excellent example of how we have leveraged the strength of this company to support research and education in North Carolina. We look forward to the collaborative effort in the state focused on using these technologies to support education at all levels, including K-12 schools. It’s essential to find ways to contribute to the development of 21st century skills by inspiring our children to pursue higher education.”

Self-Healing Reliability

In addition to increased bandwidth, the enhancements include a transition from a point-to-point network to a self-healing network ring architecture for enhanced reliability. If a problem occurs that could disrupt network connectivity, network traffic is rerouted automatically. The enhanced NCREN reroutes service so quickly and efficiently that faculty, students and other users do not even notice a glitch when part of the network is temporarily down. With the launch of NCREN3 four years ago, a commitment was made to continue the evolution of NCREN to provide a foundation to meet the research and education needs of North Carolina well into the future. By sharing costs through MCNC, a non-profit organization, and leveraging economies of scale by purchasing equipment and services on a statewide basis, universities receive high-quality, advanced networking services at a lower cost than any single university could replicate.

Robyn Render, UNC General Administration vice president for information resources and chief information officer, said, “Through the statewide enhancements, all 16 campuses of the University of North Carolina are better enabled to take full advantage of advanced optical networking capabilities and high-performance computing technologies. This foundation for innovation will continue to foster greater educational opportunities and economic development, and our success with NCREN 3 is another fine example of how the universities collaborate to create new opportunities throughout the state while also identifying cost-saving opportunities. This successful model of collaboration can be expanded to include community colleges and school districts across the state.”

Crites said that NCREN 3 is an example of a continuous cycle of networking advancements throughout North Carolina. “Statewide collaboration through NCREN has established North Carolina universities as leaders in advanced network services that enable innovation and discovery, providing opportunities for all students and faculty across the state,” Crites said. “We are already working with our university partners on the next generation of advanced network infrastructure in collaboration with Internet2 and the National LamdaRail.”

Regional Service Collaboration and Economic Development

A key enhancement through NCREN 3 is the establishment of Regional Points of Presence (RPoPs) beyond the core network serving the state’s largest research universities in the Research Triangle region. RPoPs are regional “on ramps” to the NCREN network, hosting network equipment to support the statewide NCREN backbone.

The regional hubs enable communities to establish their own network services for colleges, K-12 schools, and local government organizations, becoming catalysts for regional economic development.

Western North Carolina

The most recent NCREN 3 projects included enhancements serving UNC Asheville and Western Carolina University, with RPoPs added in Asheville and Hickory.

The creation of NCREN’s self-healing ring network architecture in the western portion of the state was made possible through collaboration with the Education and Research Consortium (ERC) of the Western Carolinas, a non-profit regional network serving the western regions in North Carolina and South Carolina. NCREN services support the ERC’s regional networking initiatives, including providing access to Internet2 and other national research networks.

In addition, NCREN 3 included a new research-only fiber network to support the Carolina MicroOptics Triangle, a regional optical research partnership among UNC Charlotte, Western Carolina University and Clemson University. The organization was formed to coordinate the technology platforms of the partner institutions for technology advancement, local education support, support to local companies, and to support economic development in the region. Over 150 jobs have been created, new degree programs have been established, and the region has established a reputation as one of the nation’s leading optical centers.

Piedmont North Carolina

The first three RPoPs established outside of the triangle area were in Charlotte, Greensboro, and Winston Salem. In Winston-Salem, WinstonNet was the first regional community network established through NCREN. Recent projects include the establishment of 40 computer labs throughout Forsyth County, 18 Winston-Salem City Parks and Recreation computer labs, 10 public library labs, and 12 labs established by Winston-Salem State University in area churches and other underserved areas. WinstonNet supports more than 350 computers and plans to expand this operation to another 50 labs over the next two years.

Southeastern North Carolina

An NCREN3 enhancement in Southeastern North Carolina established RPoPs in Wilmington and Fayetteville that provide enhanced services to UNC Wilmington, UNC Pembroke and Fayetteville State University. These institutions refer to the collaboration as the Southeast Education and Research Network (SERNet). Robert Tyndall, vice chancellor for information technology systems at UNC Wilmington and the initial organizer of SERNet, said that “through collaboration with NCREN, our region now has access to a more powerful and reliable network that will allow our universities, public schools, government and health care agencies to tap into a wide array of new services and to better share our knowledge resources.”

Eastern North Carolina

An RPoP was established at East Carolina University tying in high-speed connectivity to Elizabeth City State University and the Center for Marine Science and Technology at Morehead City.

In addition, the NCREN 3 project was the foundation for a broader expansion of broadband Internet access throughout the region. For example, the Eastern North Carolina Broadband Initiative is an innovative $14.6 million public-private partnership including Sprint, the Albemarle-Pamlico Economic Development Corp., East Carolina University, and MCNC. The initiative expands the availability of broadband access, telehealth and e-learning capabilities east of Interstate 95, providing a boost for economic development.

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