Fast Forerunner to a New Internet?
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 9, 1997; Page E01
Alan Millman had developed what he thought was a "really cool" three-dimensional computer model of the human ear. Displayed on a big-screen monitor, the "virtual reality" simulation could smoothly zoom into the ear's nooks and crannies, revealing the intricate connection of bones and tissue, simply with the movement of a hand-held pointer.
But when Millman, an assistant professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, tried to run his program on the Internet two weeks ago, the ear appeared frozen on the screen.
Yesterday, he found salvation in something called "Internet2." It's a collaborative effort among U.S. research universities, the National Science Foundation and several technology companies to get around the traffic jams and speed limits on today's commercial Internet by creating an ultra-fast, members-only network. In service experimentally at 12 universities, it allows users to send and receive data as much as 100 times faster than on the normal Internet.
In many ways, the project represents a sneak preview of the Internet's future. Just as today's Internet started in the 1960s and '70s for university researchers, the technologies that make Internet2 work could migrate into the broader, commercial Internet over the next one to two years.
The most significant development, researchers say, will be the ability to send very large files over the Internet at near real-time speeds. For businesses, that could mean having high-quality video conference calls or transmitting voluminous data files. For ordinary people at home, it could make possible the transmission of clear television images and CD-quality sound.
Started a year ago with 34 member universities, the project has blossomed to include 112 educational institutions that collectively have invested more than $50 million in the network. Project leaders expect about 30 institutions to be online by the end of the year.
"When we started this a year ago, we thought it was a 20- or 30-university type of thing," said Michael M. Roberts, the network's project director. "Now it's turned into a party that schools don't want to miss."
At a meeting in Washington yesterday, the project took another big step forward, transforming itself from an informal consortium of universities to a nonprofit corporation that intends to spearhead the development of a host of advanced networking technologies.
"Today's Internet doesn't work as well as we need it to for world-class research," said Douglas E. Van Houweling, Internet2's new chief executive. "That's partly because of the way the network was built and partly because everybody is using it."
The project has piqued the interest of technology companies, who see it as a massive test bed for their latest and greatest products. Nine large companies, including International Business Machines Corp., telephone switch manufacturer Northern Telecom Ltd. and networking firms 3Com Corp. and Cisco Systems Inc. have pledged at least $1 million each in goods and services for the project.
"This is a great lab," said Michael D. Austin, the director of U.S. business development for Newbridge Networks Inc., a Canadian firm that has its U.S. headquarters in Herndon. It is one of the companies that pledged $1 million. "What the universities are doing today, the commercial world will be doing in two years. This gives us a chance, in a controlled environment, to try out some of our newest technologies."
Companies such as Newbridge and Cisco are testing hardware on Internet2 that directs traffic faster -- think of it as better interchanges on the information highway. At the same time, university researchers working on the project are developing software to take advantage of the faster network speeds.
"This is a very collaborative process," Roberts said.
The Internet2 doesn't rely on laying new data cables between universities. Instead, it uses a high-speed national network, run by MCI Communications Corp. for the National Science Foundation, that has been used to connect the country's federal supercomputer centers.
Each participating university is responsible for connecting itself to the MCI-NSF network and for building a high-speed infrastructure within its campus. Most universities pay for such costs through grants administered by the NSF, Roberts said.
The Internet2 is a component of the Clinton administration's $300 million Next Generation Internet initiative, which aims to connect several national labs and universities at speeds even faster than Internet2 -- about 10 times so -- by the year 2000. [See "Netizens Oppose Tapping Domain Fund"]
As conceived, both the Internet2 and the Next Generation Internet would be closed to business and recreational use. But, if successful, the software and hardware that will operate those networks eventually would be purchased by commercial Internet service providers, resulting in faster access for average users, experts say.
For those who are part of Internet2 today, the improvement has been something to gush about. Millman, the University of Illinois researcher, could barely contain his excitement yesterday.
"This is so much better," he said. "It actually makes [the simulation] work."
Across the room from him, researchers from Indiana University were showing off how Internet2 allows the real-time transmission of concert hall-like sound of Chopin's Polonaise in A flat minor. Next to them, a scientist from the Argonne National Laboratory was demonstrating how television-like images can be sent over the network.
The only ones who didn't find themselves with enough network capacity were a team from the University of Illinois Laboratory for Advanced Computing, who were trying to send a 20-trillion-character data file from Chicago to researchers in Philadelphia.
"We're greedy," said Robert Grossman, the lab's director. "It's tough to build a network that will be big enough for everybody."
© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company
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