Fast networks key to new apps, says White House

Officials look to more quickly build out U.S. gigabit networks, but obstacles, including software costs, remain

WASHINGTON -Fast food franchises have a larger presence in many communities than next generation, high-speed gigabit networks, a fact the White House says it's attempting to address.

Officials believe that connecting the nation's disparate and sparse high speed gigabit deployments with government help could trigger the development of new types of applications. The new applications could prove a boon to the manufacturing and medical delivery industries and even to SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence)-like efforts that rely on networked computer resources.

Thursday, White House science and technology officials outlined plans to accelerate high-speed network deployments by allowing network carriers to run lines on federal property and highway rights of way.

Tom Kalil, deputy director for policy at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, said a priority of the program is to foster development of applications for advanced manufacturing that could be accessed remotely.

High speed networks can help manufacturers get access to remote modeling and simulation tools that can "dramatically reduce the time and cost associated with new products," said Kalil.

Jon Riley, executive director of design and engineering programs at the National Center for Manufacturing Sciences (NCMS) in Ann Arbor, Mich., a group which is working to connect small and mid-sized manufacturers to high performance computing resources, applauded the effort, but added that the main problem for those looking to develop the new applications is the cost of software.

Licensing costs of modeling and simulation software, which often charge by CPU, can quickly get "completely out of control," said Riley. The costs could run into the hundreds of thousands of dollars, which "is just not practical when you are only using the tools sporadically," he added.

Although industry groups and White House officials have cited the development of advanced manufacturing tools as a national priority, Riley said the funding is lagging as well as efforts to educate manufacturers about the benefits of advanced techniques.

Riley isn't knocking the high-speed gigabit effort and said faster transmission rates will help. "I think it's needed," said Riley, "but from where I stand it would be secondary."

Steve Conway, a high-performance computing (HPC) analyst at IDC, however, believes that more gigabit networks can give a "tremendous boost" to manufacturing, particularly as U.S. companies compete with low wage nations.

Tier one manufacturers are already using HPC system to design and test products but their supply chains are not. "This could be very helpful," he said, of gigabit networks.

As part of the White House effort, a new public-private partnership, the US Ignite Partnership, was created and charged with spurring development of advanced applications for gigabit networks.

Ignite CTO Glenn Ricart said high speed networks would open the doors to a range of new applications and cost tradeoffs. In the latter case, SETI-type networks that use thousands of home and business PCs to run calculations during idle periods may be expanded.

Video conferencing may also be a big beneficiary, said Ricart. Today, users need expensive equipment to compress video signals, machines that wouldn't be needed with gigabits channels, he said.

Gigabit networks can differ substantially via software-defined network and virtualization, said Ricart. A user can configure a network in much the same way they configure a virtual server, defining the speed of the network and latency.

For instance, healthcare applications could be dynamically customized, particularly for remote medicine, which would be "very interesting and enable a lot of new applications," he said.

Catherine Middleton, a communications researcher at associate professor in Ted Rogers School of Information Management at Ryerson University in Toronto, said that while there is a real sense of huge potential, there aren't yet many tangible applications, in part because aren't gigabyte networks to support them on.

There are gigabit networks here and there in the U.S. but no broad deployments, said Middleton. Developing the applications for gigabit networks, as well as the business models will take a long time, she added.

Patrick Thibodeau covers SaaS and enterprise applications, outsourcing, government IT policies, data centers and IT workforce issues for Computerworld. Follow Patrick on Twitter at @DCgov, or subscribe to Patrick's RSS feed . His e-mail address is pthibodeau@computerworld.com.

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