Nationwide Optical Research Net Planned
The group is National LambdaRail (NLR). Members include nine universities and academic research organizations, as well as Cisco Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: CSCO).
The NLR network will use up to forty DWDM channels per fiber pair, each supporting rates to 10-Gbit/s. It will run switched Ethernet and routed IP.
The goal is optimum bandwidth -- and escape from the technical interdependencies of older research nets. "The one NLR network, with its 'dark fiber' and other technical features, gives us 40 essentially private networks," said Tracy Futhey, chair of NLR's board and CIO at Duke University, in a prepared statement. "A chemist at Duke or an astronomer at Stanford won't have to worry that an experiment gone wrong could take down the whole network."
NLR hopes the network will be used for a research "at the optical, switching, routing, middleware, and application layers." Examples of what the network might be used for range widely, from grid computing for neurobiology research to development of new networking protocols on behalf of private-sector vendors.
The NLR network is set to start going live on a segment-by-segment basis in mid-November 2003, with all links complete by the end of April 2004. Links initially will be set for four wavelengths, with full capacity added progressively, as needed, by individual members. Ultimately, the network will serve research centers and university networks in Atlanta; Chicago; Denver; Jacksonville, Fla.; Pittsburgh; Seattle; Sunnyvale, Calif.; and Washington. A Dallas connection is hoped for, but that depends on whether a consortium of Texas universities joins NLR.
The estimated cost is $80 million to $100 million over the next five years, a hunk of which will be paid for by the members, who are required to kick in an unspecified amount to join up. Support of the network will be provided by the members, through RFPs from the central organization.
"We don't want to be in a situation where we're dependent on federal money or the private sector for our basic, foundation capabilities," says Thomas W. West, an NLR board member who also is president/executive director of Corporation for Education Network Initiatives in California (CENIC). It was important to demonstrate NLR members' commitment first, he says, in order to make the project an attractive investment for government and others.
NLR bought dark fiber and collocation facilities for the network from Level 3 Communications Inc. (Nasdaq: LVLT). Cisco provided long-haul equipment, including the ONS 15808 optical transport platform, as well as metro gear.
Both Level 3 and Cisco offered NLR discounted rates, West says, without giving specifics.
One source not affiliated with NLR thinks Cisco's discount may have been contingent on having its equipment used exclusively in the network -- hence, the reason Cisco is so far the only equipment vendor involved in NLR. According to Bill St-Arnaud, senior director of advanced networks for Canada's CA*net 4 research network, Cisco was eager to showcase its long-haul gear. "I don't think NLR would have gotten off the ground if they tried for a multivendor solution," he says.
At press time, Cisco had not responded to queries about its reaons for joining NLR, its discounts to the group, or whether it asked for exclusivity in any part of the arrangement.
NLR's West, however, denies any exclusive arrangement, and if Cisco requested any preferential treatment, his lips are sealed. "There were a number of reasons why Cisco was picked. They had the best price, and they really wanted to invest in the network," he says.
Level 3 acknowledges it went below commercial pricing as a means of contributing to the cause. "We looked at it as our contribution to higher education that could be beneficial to society," says Geoff Jordan, VP of sales for Level 3's research and academic channel. But unlike Cisco, Level 3 hasn't joined NLR. Jordan says the benefits of membership, which involve ongoing cash investment, aren't really clear for Level 3. The carrier wouldn't necessarily profit from the kind of research being planned for the network. "Optical core technology is not a research objective at NLR," he says.
Cisco and other equipment vendors, on the other hand, could benefit directly from the research into advanced networking at the edge that is planned to take place on NLR, Jordan says.
NLR is one of just two multi-regional optical research networks in the pipeline stateside. Another, dubbed USAWaves, is being undertaken by Southeastern Universities Research Association (SURA) in collaboration with AT&T Corp. (NYSE: T). But so far, that's still in the preliminary planning stages, according to an update on SURA's Website.
— Mary Jander, Senior Editor, Light Reading