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Image showing the rout of the little GLORIAD Network. Click for larger image.

The United States, Russia and China completed the first round-the-world computer network ring, which will be used for joint scientific and educational projects. In closing the ring, the three nations increased the bandwidth between the United States and China and made the first-ever fiber network connection across the Russia-China border. The image shows the route of the Little GLORIAD network as it passes through Chicago, Amsterdam, Moscow, Novosibirsk, Zabajkal'sk, Manzhouli, Beijing and Hong Kong.

Credit: Trent Schindler, National Science Foundation

Networking for Tomorrow

Image showing the cables that carry the traffic of Starlight. Click for larger image.
Credit: Starlight
NSF’s history of leadership in cutting-edge network technologies goes as far back as the NSFNET backbone, which catalyzed the growth of today’s Internet (see "A Brief History of NSF and the Internet"). NSF continues to promote activities to explore and engineer 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.

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). Without competition from general Internet traffic, the vBNS permitted advanced networking research and the development of novel scientific applications. The vBNS initially connected the NSF supercomputer centers and NSF-specified Network Access Points, where linked the vBNS to other research networks.

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 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.

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 its eight-year history, the High-Performance Network Connections program helped 250 institutions enhance their high-end network connectivity.

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 (described below).

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 $300 million to connect universities and national laboratories with high-performance networks and to promote next-generation networking technologies.

NGI was not itself an advanced network, although the term is often used generically to refer to future Internet possibilities. 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 played a key part in these efforts, and the NGI initiative provided NSF nearly $75 million over three years. This helped 150 institutions get connected to vBNS and later, Internet2’s Abilene network, through NSF's High-Performance Network Connections program, 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 1999.

The NGI initiative was overseen by the Committee on Computing, Information and Communications (CCIC) through its Large-Scale Network working group, co-chaired by NSF’s George Strawn and NASA’s Dave Nelson. Although the NGI initiative ended successfully in 2000, 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.

Internet2: 1996-Present. While NSF and other federal agencies were deploying their own advanced research and education networks, a group of universities formed the nonporfit 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. In 1999, the vBNS and Abilene networks were connected through the NSF-supported STAR TAP.

Many Internet2 member institutions have received NSF High-Performance Network Connections awards. In 1999, NSF made a $6 million award to EDUCAUSE to establish the Advanced Networking Project for Minority Serving Institutions (AN-MSI).

International Bridges: 1990-Present. 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. From 1997 to 2004, NSF's High-Performance International Internet Services (HPIIS) program supported STAR TAP in Chicago for interconnecting NSF's vBNS with other advanced networks. In 2002, an NSF award created the optical StarLight exchange point.

The HPIIS project also 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, through workshops and other awards, a developing project to link Central and South America (AMPATH).

In late 2003, 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 known simply as GLORIAD, shorthand for Global Ring Network for Advanced Application Development. The ultimate goal of the GLORIAD project is to create a 10 gigabit-per-second optical network around the entire Northern Hemisphere.

That effort got underway in earnest in early 2005, when GLORIAD was one of five projects funded under NSF’s new International Research Network Connections program, which continues the HPIIS mission of enabling international research and education collaborations. The other IRNC projects:

  • The Consortium of International Research and Education Network (CIREN), which will provide high-performance connectivity between the US and Asia, starting with high-speed connections linking the U.S. West Coast with Tokyo, Hong Kong and Singapore.
  • The Western Hemisphere Research and Education Networks (WHREN), which will provide high-performance computing and networking services between North and South America, including connectivity to RedCLARA, Latin America’s emerging backbone for research and engineering.
  • Translight/Starlight, which will connect exchange points in Chicago, New York and Amsterdam. This award includes funding of a 10 gigabit-per-second connection between the Internet2/Abilene network in the United States, and GEANT, its counterpart network in Europe.
  • TransLight/PacificWave, which will connect Seattle and Los Angeles with Australia and other key countries around the Pacific Rim.
Cyberinfrastructure A Special Report