The proving ground for mega-bandwidth networks is in research and development. But there are real-world uses.

Advances in networking are typically driven by bleeding-edge users with appetites for bandwidth that can't be sated. Analysts and academics point to a variety of bandwidth-gobbling applications, typically falling into three categories.

The first is interactive real-time design, such as flight simulation and aerodynamic modeling, architectural and automobile design—virtually any application with thousands of variables that fluctuate from moment to moment. For example, Caterpillar Inc. takes a page out of Star Trek's "holodeck" to design equipment in a virtual reality room known as "The Cave," originally developed at the University of Illinois at Chicago. An engineer moves around in a small room wearing a head-mounted display that simulates a three-dimensional design of, say, a backhoe, peering inside the projection and determining what will and won't work before a single lump of modeling clay is cast. Only a network providing massive bandwidth can handle the sheer volume of data such an application requires.

The second group of mega-bandwidth uses involves gathering and moving around huge chunks of data, such as remote equipment manipulation, oceanographic and seismic sensing, and global data collection from field trials of products such as pharmaceuticals. The Gemini Observatories, twin telescopes perched above the 10,000-feet level in Chile and in Hawaii, can combine to provide a 360-degree view of the night sky. But coordinating the two telescopes has been impossible, and the altitude prevented some researchers from journeying there. Now academics from any Abilene-connected university can manipulate the telescopes via a pipe carrying a minimum of 600 megabits per second—without leaving their desks. The results in both cases: Better data, and research money goes to research, not travel.

But the poster child for next-generation networks has always been desktop videoconferencing. We've been hearing for years that we'll have seamless real-time conferencing any day now. Yet high-quality bidirectional video and audio are tremendous bandwidth hogs, clogging local and wide-area networks alike, and few companies can make the case that precious bandwidth resources should be chewed up by an application few see as mission critical.

There's a solution: Argonne National Laboratory's Access Grid Node is a bundle of technologies that can turn a conference room into a virtual meeting venue straight out of a sci-fi movie, allowing up to 30 real-time high-quality video links from around the world to be displayed on screens in real time.

The challenge for corporations, however, is that few are ready to make the investment to expand the high-bandwidth connections in their R&D shops to include their production networks. It's going to take new strategic applications to make it worth upping the performance of its overall network.

Ask Your R&D Department:

Dream a little. What could you do with unlimited bandwidth?

Ask Your Business Users:

Which bandwidth-enabled services could increase your profitability or productivity, or significantly reduce your costs?

Tell Your CFO:

We may not be able to make the business case for greatly increased wide-area bandwidth today. But adding up future application needs may change our plans.

This article was originally published on 01-01-2003
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