New networks promote international teamwork

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Collaboration is common in research but it can place huge demands on the computer networks used. Now an international initiative is providing a new way for high bandwidth users to work together, writes David Salmon, the manager of UKLight, the UK's part in the initiative

Collaborations in particle physics, radio astronomy, environmental modelling and high-resolution medical imaging are just some of the research areas that require vast amounts of computer network bandwidth. As researchers exchange and download huge quantities of data they can unwittingly freeze up the network for other staff and students at their institutions.

This issue becomes critical when you consider that applications within these fields can require data communications between institutions in the gigabit-per-second range and above, and that these links must be sustained for hours or even days. This not only places burdens on other users of the network, but also on the levels of service that the network must deliver to support these collaborations.

In recognition of this, several national network and research organisations across the world have started to build an international experimental facility known as the Global Lambda Infrastructure Facility (GLIF). The aim of GLIF, which includes universities, research institutes, government and industry bodies in the US, Japan, Canada and across Europe, is to test whether high-bandwidth research collaboration can be better achieved by using dedicated channels over optical fibres.

Traditional networking uses a packet switching approach, where data is broken down into individual packets for transmission and recombined at the other end. This is an efficient way to use the network but is less good with very large volumes of data that may need to be processed in real time because of the risk of a packet of data getting delayed or even lost. In the GLIF approach, channel switching, researchers are instead allocated a dedicated wavelength of light to communicate at within the optical fibre. The use of a dedicated portion of the light spectrum allows collaborators around the world to link up for hours or even days without being interrupted or disrupting others.

The UK's involvement in the initiative is through its UKLight facility, which is backed by the Joint Information Systems Committee (JISC) and managed by UKERNA on behalf of the UK research community. UKLight has a hub at the University of London Computing Centre and 10 Gbit/s connections to the StarLight facility in Chicago and the NetherLight facility in Amsterdam. These links can be partitioned to provide dedicated switched channels to collaborators in the rest of the world, provided they are able to gain local access to the global infrastructure.

Access to UKLight from institutions within the UK will be provided by an extended national development network implemented within JANET, the UK's academic network.

Applications for exchanging research data over the dedicated links are already emerging. The particle physics community has established a 1Gbit/s Ethernet channel between the UK and the physics laboratory Fermilab near Chicago. This link will give physicists direct access to raw data sets and allow simulated-event data produced in the UK to be transported to Fermilab.

Professor Peter Clarke of the Particle Physics Research Group at University College London predicts that the possibilities of optical networking could fundamentally change the way that collaborative research is undertaken: 'It heralds a new era of international network research collaboration based upon this global testbed,' he said.

UK radio astronomers will be using channels to the Netherlands to extend the capability of their radio-telescope interferometry programme. And persistent connections to the Teragrid in the USA are expected to help high-performance computing visualisation experiments. Another example is the use of high capacity channels for the rapid remote-viewing of high-resolution mammography images.

Sites wishing to gain access to UKLight via the extended JANET development network have submitted proposals that the UKLight Steering Committee is currently assessing.

Meanwhile, several other national research and education networks (NRENs) in €pe are considering similar facilities, and DANTE, the organisation which manages the GEANT network that interconnects the European NRENs, is planning to incorporate similar concepts into its next iteration, GEANT2. EGEE, one of the projects supported by the €pean Commission with an emphasis on production Grid activities, will also use these networks where they are available. Other groups are also interested in using UKLight, and proposals are broadening from the traditional base in 'big science', such as particle physics and astronomy, to the arts and humanities, including music and performance. And by the end of this year the GLIF infrastructure is expected to be linking researchers on five continents.

Further information
Global Lambda Integrated Facility