Test of near-light speed computing network aims to help researchers

Jodi Genshaft

Researchers at Northwestern are helping conduct the first metropolitan test-run of a computing network that operates 10 to 100 times faster than NU’s own Ethernet connection.

NU’s International Center for Advanced Internet Research, or iCAIR, has teamed up with Nortel Networks and SBC Communications, Inc., to create an all-optical broadband network that uses light waves, whereas most corporate and university networks use a slower fiber-optic system.

This initiative will test a 10-gigabit Ethernet system in networks around Chicago, “creating the world’s most advanced network for a city,” said Joe Mambretti, director of iCAIR.

Although the technology already has undergone testing in wide-area networks, which connect large cities, metropolitan networks have not yet tried the system, said Jeremy Weinberger, an iCAIR systems engineer.

“If this network that we’re developing goes forward, you’re going to have a high-speed infrastructure for the city of Chicago,” said Weinberger, a Weinberg senior.

The metropolitan network, OMNInet, would combine with a Chicago government initiative, CivicNet.

One benefit for NU from this project involves the need to transfer huge amounts of information between research institutions. For example, Argonne National Laboratory has to mail electronic tapes with technical data to medical research groups at NU. But the high-speed optical network would send the information at close to the speed of light.

The technology works by driving streams of light through a prism-like device to create clear glass optical fibers that can switch on and off at higher speeds than electrical wires, said McCormick Prof. Prem Kumar.

“Optical fiber has been a great invention,” said Kumar, director of NU’s Center for Photonic Communication and Computing.

At NU, a fiber line running between Leverone Hall and the Technological Institute funnels OMNInet data for testing, Kumar said.

The metropolitan network, OMNInet, spans across Chicago in four different sites: NU’s Evanston and Chicago campuses, the University of Illinois at Chicago and CANARIE, a Canadian research network in Chicago.

During the six-month test that ends in June, researchers will look at OMNInet’s real-life applications for large-scale file transfers, such as data from the Human Genome Project and 3-D images of medical procedures, Mambretti said.

Doctors already have conducted experimental surgery from remote locations, said Medical School Prof. Kenric Murayama, but a delay in real-time video due to slower transmission speeds could lead to mistakes when operating.

“You can only have the most negligible of delays to avoid reacting to an image that is not current,” said Murayama, director of NU’s Minimally Invasive Surgery Program. “Otherwise you might respond to something that’s an old image.”

OMNInet would especially help smaller hospitals around Chicago where surgeons specializing in a specific procedure are not available, he said.

The technology does have drawbacks, Murayama said, primarily the tremendous expense.

This project’s cost of several million dollars already has necessitated the help of corporate partners such as SBC Communications, the parent company of Ameritech and Pacific Bell, Mambretti said. Corporate funding is necessary in this kind of project, said Mort Rahimi, NU’s vice president for information technology.

“You cannot do engineering work in a vacuum,” Rahimi said. “You have to work with real systems, real companies, real people and real government agencies. This is simply the reality.”

But researching for the sake of research has different consequences than corporations’ applied use of technology, a fact that worries university researchers. Kumar stressed the need to protect patents when dealing with corporations.

“Technology, if fallen into the wrong hands, can devastate everything,” Kumar said.