In The Corporation

By Gary Bolles

Technology: Advanced Bandwidth




Massive bandwidth may not be readily available to the average company, but ...

Imagine not having to worry about bandwidth. Imagine that you didn't have to concern yourself with the usual nightmares of wide-area networking, like poorly designed carrier networks that choke the performance out of your mission- critical transmissions. Imagine you could guarantee every user in your company the bandwidth they needed, anywhere in the country. Imagine there was so little latency that you didn't have to worry that a large file transfer would choke your company's pipes. What kinds of strategic applications would you be able to build?

Welcome to the world of advanced networking. This kind of capability not only exists today, it's already in production, connecting hundreds of sites nationwide. Remember Internet2? It was originally a collection of universities attempting to push the envelope for networking to see how a variety of communications problems could be overcome. Not only is it still around, but it's connecting more than 200 U.S. colleges, government sites—and now, corporations.

Conspicuous Consumption

Today, that network, known as Abilene, is a proving ground for high-bandwidth technologies. And we mean really high: A 2.5 gigabit-per-second cross-country backbone is being upgraded to 10 gigabits per second, with the goal of offering 100 megabits per second of fast-turnaround connectivity between every Abilene-connected desktop. The premise is simple: Make the network invisible so you can focus on other issues, like making applications actually work without bandwidth penalties. "If you get a sufficiently large quantitative leap in performance," says Greg Wood, communications director at Internet2, "you get to do your work in a qualitatively different way." John Jamison, a consulting engineer for research and education at Juniper Networks, agrees: "It's not just, 'What can I do with high bandwidth?' It's, 'What's possible when lots of people get high bandwidth?' "

A number of brand-name corporations— The Boeing Co., Ford Motor Co., General Motors Corp., Johnson & Johnson—are getting into the act as well, leveraging Internet2's fiber backbone for strategic research and development. Though many of these efforts are still focused on traditional R&D, it won't be long before a number of these bleeding-edge capabilities trickle down to the average company, supporting a range of business applications.

Ask Your Network Architect:

Which services we offer today are limited by the bandwidth we have available?

Ask Your Network Gurus:

What technical limitations are we dealing with internally that keep us from leveraging greater bandwidth between our offices?

Ask Your Vendors:

How ready is our current networking equipment for high-bandwidth wide-area connections?



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.

In The Corporation

In The Corporation

As the drivers of high-bandwidth commercialization become clearer, bleeding-edge technologies are slowly migrating to the corporation.

The process for infusing technologies developed through initiatives like Internet2 into products you'll actually be able to buy is anything but direct. It's dependent on the commercial savvy of the universities involved and the relentless focus of startups that can navigate the often-unwieldy process of taking technologies out of the lab.

Take, for example, Chicago-based InSORS Integrated Communications, which has built a commercial version of Argonne's video collaboration product and named it the InSORS Grid. Customers such as Ford and Motorola Inc. have established videoconferencing nodes by leveraging high-bandwidth connections that allow users to conduct real-time discussions comfortably. Brian Gleason, InSORS' director of business development, says his company consolidated Argonne's four servers into one, integrated cameras and displays, and added a gateway for companies that can't support IP multicasting—the ability to broadcast packets to multiple recipients. According to Gleason, traditional low-bandwidth videoconferencing gets only 4 percent to 8 percent use, but high-bandwidth "immersive" videoconferencing rapidly gets infused into the customer's way of communicating internally. "Once they get a real feel for doing this kind of stuff," says Gleason, "it's just a matter of time before it becomes a part of their regular culture."

Once the pathways for real-time video are in place, analysts say, other applications appear, including distance learning for teleworkers and broadcasts of CEO speeches—what some call "ego-casts." Beyond videoconferencing, though, analysts say a couple of trends are pushing corporations toward advanced networking.

First, the post-Y2K trend of centralizing into downtown data centers is a thing of the past. Redundancy and relocation are the watchwords of today's technology architects. "Suddenly the idea of being all in one building doesn't seem like such a hot idea any more," says Giga Information Group networking analyst Jim Slaby. David Willis, vice president for global networking strategies at Meta Group, agrees. "Separating users from the sources of their data can have a pretty big payoff." That typically means leaving workers in the heart of a city, moving data centers to one or more nearby suburbs, and putting communications connections between sites running at 155 megabits per second and above.

Second, separating storage from servers in storage area networks is just a first step, analysts say. As TCP/IP and Ethernet come to rule the connectivity roost, users will increasingly move storage farther and farther from the users accessing it. And grid computing has the potential to create an even greater distance between computing resources and the applications that run them—and increasing the bandwidth needed to keep everything connected. The aim: Greater business flexibility through rapidly readied computing resources and reduced cost of ownership.

Ask Your Vendors:

What would be required for us to support IP multicasting?

Ask Your Travel Department:

How much would we save if we cut down on in-person meetings by, say, a quarter?

Ask Your CEO:

How would you communicate differently with employees if you had these capabilities in place?

Planning Ahead

Planning Ahead

You'll probably be using a variety of capabilities for advanced networks sooner than you think.

Depending on whose numbers you believe, bandwidth usage is starting to inch north again. According to Gartner Inc., even slowly adopting companies are going to experience 15-fold growth in bandwidth use within four years. "Enterprises continue to experience network traffic growth rates in the 35 percent to 50 percent per year range," says Gartner vice president and research director Jay Pultz.

That's a far cry from the days when Internet traffic doubled every 90 days, but it's still a lot of growth, and not every company is prepared for it. "A lot of organizations don't have a good handle on their bandwidth requirements, and they're periodically faced with these bandwidth crises," says Giga's Slaby. "Much of the world spends its time reacting to problems in the network rather than anticipating them."

Analysts say IT departments can help themselves by better managing what they have, reducing bandwidth requirements through caching and other technologies. But sooner or later, you're going to need more bandwidth. That's when people like Don Newell, principal engineer at Intel's network architecture lab in Hillsboro, Ore., come in. He points to four areas that the chipmaker believes are critical for dealing with the sheer volume of corporate bandwidth requirements. IP will continue to grow as the transportation method of choice, taking over communications chores from a raft of proprietary communications protocols. Ethernet will do the same at the cabling level, even potentially overtaking schemes like Fibre Channel for connecting disks at high speed. Intelligence will continue its rapid creep into the network, with numerous pieces of equipment gaining smarts that will let them make decisions about everything from performance to security. And finally, a nonproprietary server architecture will keep servers from being potential bottlenecks in high-speed communications. All this means that you'll continue to see smarter equipment moving into the network at rapidly reduced cost.

But the real value of advanced networking will come when such connections are linked to customers and partners. All the strategic value of high-bandwidth wide-area connections— greater flexibility, rapid and better-quality communications, increased ability to gather and analyze data—provide far more benefit to the organization when enterprise resources can be married to those of other companies. That's one of the clear messages of the Internet2 initiative, where the connected universities are continually inventing new applications to take advantage of bandwidth with few limits.

Ask Your Network Architect:

How does our three-year strategic plan incorporate migration in these directions?

Ask Your Wide-Area Bandwidth ISPS:

Are you prepared to meet our ongoing bandwidth projections—at a reasonable cost?

Tell Your CFO:

As we devise new ways of leveraging bandwidth, we'll be suggesting a variety of strategic initiatives that will mean continuing investment in upgrading our network.

This article was originally published on 01-01-2003