SFU leads speedy networks

Feb 20, 2003, vol. 26, no. 4
By Stuart Colcleugh

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Mathematician Jonathan Borwein (left) says the goal is to improve the tools for collaboration.

If you thought phase 1 of the internet was a wild ride, hold on to your seat, says Michael Hrybyk, because phase 2 will blow your socks off. You may not have noticed, he adds, but it's already begun, and SFU is playing a pioneering role.

“Things are going to change quickly and in some ways we can't yet imagine,” says the president and CEO of BCNET, the non-profit consortium which includes SFU, that first hooked B.C. up to the internet. It provides provincial research and higher-learning institutions with network connections.

SFU researchers are at the forefront of a host of mind-boggling projects that are only now possible because of B.C.'s optical regional advanced network (ORAN), which was launched from BCNET's Harbour Centre offices in Vancouver last September and now connects the province's four universities and BCIT.

“The ORAN will allow our researchers to stay at the cutting edge of research in this highly competitive field and collaborate more readily with colleagues across the country and around the world,” says Bruce Clayman, VP-research.

The ORAN delivers ultra high-speed optical-fibre networking capacity to users at levels equal to or greater than the most advanced research networks in the world. It also provides critical high-speed gateways to other research and education networks, including Canada's CANARIE CA*Net4, Internet2 in the U.S. and the internet, through BCNET's gigabit ethernet switch and router complex at Harbour Centre.

Last December, the new network set a world data-transfer speed record of 11gigabits per second (gps) -15 times faster than the previous record - moving five terabytes of data (equivalent to about 50 million CDs) in just seven hours, during a 10,000-kilometre transfer from Vancouver to Chicago and back.

The university's nominal bandwidth should reach eight gps within the next six months and be “practically unlimited” over the next 20 years, says Hrybyk. That's a huge incentive to start developing applications, he says. A recent BCNET audit found that SFU faculty are eagerly jumping onboard.

As part of WestGrid, a consortium of eight universities in B.C. and Alberta, SFU researchers are employing the ORAN to harness a grid of some the world's most powerful processing and storage supercomputers. The project will enable researchers to push the frontiers of grid computing and e-science in areas such as drug modeling, climate prediction, medical visualization and engineering.

Members of SFU CoLab, at the Centre for Experimental and Constructive Mathematics, are using ORAN to develop new computer-assisted tools for peer-oriented collaborating over high-speed networks. The mathematical computational group is working on interactive 3D virtual environments that let colleagues brainstorm in real time from different locations, using browsers, crystal-clear streaming video and audio, 3D models and high-speed animation.

“We know that to make distributed computing on this scale work, the tools for collaboration have to be much, much better than they've ever been, and that's our goal,” says SFU mathematician Jonathan Borwein, a leader of both the WestGrid and CoLab projects.

Others eager for gigabits include:

    • SFU-TRIUMF researchers, to move massive data packets between TRIUMF and other particle physics laboratories in Germany and Switzerland.

    • Researchers at the Canada-France-Hawaii telescope in Mauna Kea, Hawaii, to transfer digital images between Vancouver, France and the Hertzberg Institute of Astrophysics data repository in Victoria.

    • University librarian Lynn Copeland and her team, as part of the national Our Roots project to digitize and store local histories and historical papers dating back hundreds of years. The network has already resulted in faster access to thousands of academic journals, e-books and other library resources.

“We want faculty members to know that this incredible capability now exists,” says Hrybyk, “and they're welcome to take advantage of it.”

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