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Fact Sheet

NSF and High-Performance Networking Infrastructure

December 31, 2003


The National Science Foundation (NSF) has a long history of leadership in cutting-edge network technologies. The NSFNET backbone and NSF-supported regional networks catalyzed the growth of the Internet in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and NSF continues to promote activities that are exploring and engineering the architecture for the Internet of the future.

Gigabit Network Testbeds: 1989-1995. In 1989, while the NSFNET backbone was carrying traffic at 1.5 megabits per second, NSF and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) provided $20 million for the Gigabit Network Testbed Initiative, which established five testbeds to explore long-distance networking issues and applications at bandwidths a thousand times greater—up to 2.4 gigabits (2,400 megabits) per second. Commercial network providers and computer companies contributed an estimated $400 million to deploy the testbeds and support their own participation in the research activities. NSF's supercomputing centers in Urbana-Champaign, Ill., Pittsburgh and San Diego helped push the frontiers of high-speed networking in three of the testbeds.

Gigabit Network Testbed Initiative:

vBNS: 1995-2003. As NSF worked to privatize the mainstream Internet in the mid-1990s, the foundation also signed an agreement with MCI in April 1995 to establish the very-high-performance Backbone Network Service (vBNS). The vBNS was designed for conducting advanced networking research and developing applications without competition from general Internet traffic. The vBNS initially provided high-speed interconnection among the NSF supercomputer centers and NSF-specified Network Access Points, where the vBNS connected to other federal research networks.

NSF's High-Performance Network Connections program extended the reach of the vBNS each year to universities and colleges. The program provided awards to merit-reviewed proposals to support the start-up costs of connecting to high-performance networks. By 1999, 150 institutions across all 50 states were connected to the vBNS.

The vBNS began operating at speeds of 155 megabits per second (Mbps), or OC-3, at a time when the fastest general Internet links operated at 45 Mbps. In 1997, the vBNS backbone was upgraded to 622 Mbps (OC-12). The vBNS also supported new network technologies, such as IPv6, to meet the special needs of advanced applications. By 2000, the vBNS backbone was upgraded to 2.4 gigabits per second (OC-48). In 2000, NSF awarded MCI a three-year, no-cost extension to continue operating the vBNS for university customers; commercial connections to vBNS were also offered for the first time.


Next-Generation Internet: 1996-2000. The second half of the 1990s was a period of widespread activity in the area of high-performance networking. In October 1996, the President announced the Next-Generation Internet (NGI) initiative and pledged $100 million per year for three years to connect universities and national laboratories with high-performance networks and to promote next-generation networking technologies.

Significantly, NGI was not itself an advanced network. However, through the NGI initiative, NSF, the Departments of Defense and Energy, NASA, the National Institutes of Health, and the National Institute for Standards and Technology coordinated their advanced networking activities. NSF's vBNS was a key part of these efforts. With NGI funds, NSF's High-Performance Network Connections program helped more than 150 institutions connect to the vBNS and the Internet2 consortium's Abilene network, exceeding the NGI goal of 100 institutions. Also as part of NGI, NSF supported the development of hundreds of advanced networking applications, made awards for research on high-performance networking capabilities and established the Science, Technology and Research Transit Access Point (STAR TAP) in Chicago, which connected six U.S. research networks and 12 international research networks by 2000.

The NGI initiative was overseen by the Committee on Computing, Information and Communications (CCIC) through its Large-Scale Network working group, co-chaired by George Strawn of NSF and Dave Nelson of NASA. The NGI initiative ended successfully in 2000, and the participating agencies continue to interact through the Large-Scale Networking program area of the National Science and Technology Council's Interagency Working Group on Information Technology Research and Development.

Next-Generation Internet:
Large-Scale Networking program area:

Internet2: 1996-present. While NSF and other federal agencies were deploying their own advanced research and education networks, a group of universities formed the not-for-profit Internet2 consortium in 1996 to develop new Internet technologies and capabilities. Today, Internet2 has more than 220 university members; more than 60 corporate sponsors, partners and members; and more than 40 affiliate members including NSF.

The Internet2 consortium also established its own high-performance network, named Abilene. The Abilene network began operation in February 1999; a 2.5-gigabits-per-second (Gbps) backbone was completed later that year. Today, Abilene has a 10-Gbps (OC-192c) backbone that connects regional network aggregation points—known as gigaPoPs—to provide advanced network capabilities to Internet2 member institutions in all 50 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico.

Many Internet2 member institutions have received NSF high-performance connections awards, which have enabled them to connect to high-performance networks such as the vBNS or Abilene. In 1999, the vBNS and Abilene networks were connected through the NSF-supported STAR TAP.


High-Performance Network Connections: 1995-present. From the earliest days of the emerging Internet, NSF has provided programs that support universities and colleges, K-12 schools, and other institutions in making or enhancing their Internet connectivity. With the start of the vBNS, NSF began a series of programs designed to help universities and research institutions join advanced high-performance research networks. In the late 1990s, the NGI initiative provided nearly $25 million per year for three years, helping 150 institutions get connected. In its eight-year history, the High-Performance Network Connections program has helped 250 institutions enhance their connectivity to high-performance networks.

High-Performance Network Connections, see

International Bridges. As far back as 1990, NSF supported programs to link the U.S. and international research and education communities and to assist other countries in connecting to the global Internet. In 1997, NSF's High-Performance International Internet Services (HPIIS) program established STAR TAP in Chicago for interconnecting NSF's vBNS with other advanced networks. By early 1999, about 15 countries—as well as other agency's advanced networks and Abilene—had been interconnected at STAR TAP.

The HPIIS project made awards for sharing some of the costs of the high-performance connections between the United States and the Asia-Pacific region (TransPAC), Russia (MirNET, now NaukaNet) and Europe and Israel (Euro-Link) to the high-performance vBNS and Abilene networks. In addition, NSF is also supporting a developing project to link Central and South America (AMPATH) through workshops and other awards.

Most recently, NSF and NaukaNet collaborated with organizations in Russia and China to create the first global-ring network to circle the Northern Hemisphere. Called Little GLORIAD, this network is the first step towards a higher-speed network—GLORIAD, shorthand for Global Ring Network for Advanced Application Development—that is targeted for a mid-2004 start. GLORIAD is proposed to be a 10-gigabit-per-second optical network around the entire Northern Hemisphere.

AMPATH (Central and South America):
Euro-Link (Europe and Israel):
NaukaNet (Russia):
TransPAC (Asia Pacific):

Advanced Networking Research: 1995-present. With the start of the vBNS, NSF also initiated a research program to provide technical and engineering support and overall coordination of the vBNS connections. The National Laboratory for Advanced Network Research (NLANR) was created in 1995 as a collaboration among the NSF supercomputer centers. As the vBNS evolved into a stable leading-edge platform and other high-speed networks were formed, NLANR expanded its focus. Today NLANR offers applications and user support, engineering services and measurement and network analysis to institutions that are qualified to use high-performance network service providers, such as Internet2’s Abilene network and STAR TAP.



Media Contacts
David Hart, NSF, (703) 292-8070,

The National Science Foundation (NSF) is an independent federal agency that supports fundamental research and education across all fields of science and engineering. In fiscal year (FY) 2017, its budget is $7.5 billion. NSF funds reach all 50 states through grants to nearly 2,000 colleges, universities and other institutions. Each year, NSF receives more than 48,000 competitive proposals for funding and makes about 12,000 new funding awards.

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