Center for Digital Education & Converge: research in education technology for K-12 and higher education

Fast Research Networks Make Global Collaboration Possible

on December 21, 2011
A green and red Perseid meteor strikes the sky below Milky Way. Photo by Mila from the Wikimedia Commons.

As research increasingly becomes more global, universities worldwide work together through high-speed networks. But they face a number of challenges as they seek to research on an international scale.

 

The challenges of making global research possible

Scientists used to travel to different countries to gather data from science instruments including the Large Hadron Collider and major telescopes. That's not the case anymore.

"The reality now is that these massive instruments are being developed around the world, and scientists are staying at home, and they want to be able to connect with these massive data sets that they put out from all across the globe," said Rob Vietzke, executive director of network services for Internet2. 

While research previously occurred at one university, it's now done on a global scale with a university or research organization from anywhere on the planet, said Rodney G. Wilson, senior director of external research at Ciena. That research ranges from climate and weather simulation to particle physics and biotechnology research.

Current networks generally transfer data at 10 gigabits per second. And those speeds aren't fast enough to move massive amounts of data between super computers on a global scale.

"Research universities that are engaged in this type of work are severely limited in their potential success if they're not able to use the next generation or the latest generation of research networks," Wilson said.

Along with network connectivity from a wide bandwidth network, collaboration tools that reach across distances, languages and time zones are increasingly important. So is connecting international campuses with their home universities in the United States.

"University campuses are globalizing, and so it's not just about big science instruments, but it's also about supporting American universities that have global gateway campuses around the world where they have very large student bases and they want to be able to support those folks there," Vietzke said.

More than 100 networks around the world that are similar to Internet2 provide high-speed interconnectivity between universities to address these challenges.

Internet2 created a private network that recently started upgrading to 100 gigabit capacity through Ciena. That means data can travel at 100 billion bits per second from universities coast to coast and north to south, Wilson said.

 

U.S. universities connect to international research, global sites

At the November 2011 Supercomputing Conference in Seattle, a group of industry partners worked with the California Institute of Technology and the University of Victoria to showcase a high-speed link between Seattle and Victoria. An international team transferred data at a combined rate of 186 gigabits per second.

The universities have been researching how to make file transfers more efficient through different types of protocols. The old file transfer protocols don't scale to the kinds of research or problems they're doing.

"How do you move huge datasets efficiently across the planet without sort of waiting for the download?" Wilson asked. "This isn't Netflix."

Those research projects include the Large Hadron Collider, the world's largest particle accelerator, on the border near Geneva, Switzerland. The colliding particles generate petabytes of data, and no computer is fast enough to digest all of that information in a manageable way.

California Institute of Technology, a private university, connects to the collider and is part of a network of computers and research centers that work together on the particle physics data to see what conclusions they can find.

Another example of global collaboration is the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array in Chile. A single telescope that's being built in Chile is expected to put out upwards of 100 gigabits per second of data in a few years, Vietzke said. 

Through AMPATH, an international research connection point in Miami that Florida International University developed, university researchers link remotely to the telescope in Chile with an Internet2 connection. Instead of going to the instrument in Chile or the one it connects to in Hawaii, they can see the telescope and take pictures from Florida.

Along with this telescope, 10 universities work together in the Southeastern Association for Research in Astronomy consortium and operate two telescopes in Arizona and Chile.

Aside from research, universities such as Georgetown that have star faculty members including Madeleine Albright want to bring their expertise to their campuses overseas. They can travel to teach in the Middle East as well as collaborate with students at home through high quality video conferencing.

A lot of campuses face the challenge of globalizing and dealing with networking capabilities. And many of them work together to address those challenges, including Duke, New York University, Georgetown, University of Chicago and Indiana University.

When networking in countries around the world, they also need local knowledge and expertise, so collaborating with people from those countries helps, Vietzke said.

"It really is important that the campuses work together and they find that local knowledge because as we work around the world, it's really amazing what we take for granted here in terms of the capabilities we have." 


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Tanya Roscorla

Tanya Roscorla covers education technology in the classroom, behind the scenes and on the legislative agenda. Likes: Experimenting in the kitchen, cooking up cool crafts, reading good books.

E-mail: troscorla@centerdigitaled.com
Twitter: twitter.com/reportertanya
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