A team of government, university and industry researchers is putting the final touches on an experimental, high-speed, nationwide network that offers a glimpse of the Internet's future.
Called SuperNet, the testbed network will provide end-to-end transmission speeds of 2.5G bit/sec -- more than 1,000 times faster than today's Internet. Once operational, SuperNet will be a showpiece for the Clinton administration's three-year, US$300 million initiative to maintain U.S. leadership in Internet technologies.
SuperNet is already is offering clues to where enterprise and service provider network technology is headed. For example, the program is responsible for the commercialization of high-speed, optical switches currently being deployed by one long-distance carrier. The next phase of the research will focus on protocols and network management tools that will guarantee end-to-end quality of service and security for high-bandwidth applications.
"SuperNet will accelerate the velocity at which new technology is inserted into the Internet," says Hal Edwards, a Nortel Networks official who manages the West Coast arm of SuperNet. "The network management algorithms and control strategies that come out of this effort will make it easier and more cost-effective for corporate customers to run high-bandwidth applications."
Edwards says he expects corporate customers will start to see technologies coming out of SuperNet next year.
"The SuperNet program is extremely important for developing new networking technologies and validating them," says Bruce Murdock, president of Network Elements, a start-up in Beaverton, Oregon that is developing high-performance network engines for routers and switches under a SuperNet contract. "Rather than just developing new products in a lab, SuperNet allows people to test their equipment in real-world conditions."
SuperNet will be spliced together over the next few weeks using fiber-optic lines from AT&T, Bell Atlantic, Qwest, GST Telecommunications and Sprint. Ultrafast optical switches were provided by Lucent, Tellium and Nortel. Avici Systems provided a terabit switch/router.
Mari Meada, who directs the SuperNet program for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, says using equipment and fiber-optic lines from several companies was important because SuperNet needs to mimic the multivendor approach of the current Internet.
SuperNet lets researchers run very high bandwidth applications that would otherwise be cost-prohibitive, says Benjamin Peek, senior fellow at GTS Telecommunications, who estimates the SuperNet infrastructure is worth around $500 million.
"Depending on the distance, a 2.5G-bit/sec line could cost as much as a quarter of a million dollars a month," Peek says. "Plus, you can't buy a 2.5G-bit/sec line on a month-to-month basis. Long-distance carriers require one- to three-year minimum contracts ... Even a company like Boeing couldn't possibly conceive of putting together a network like this for an experiment that might fail."
The SuperNet backbone will connect 100 users via six regional research networks that range in speed from 2.5G bit/ sec to 20G bit/sec. Researchers will be able to reserve huge amounts of bandwidth for demanding real-time applications, such as telemedicine, distance learning and videoconferencing.
"The ability to have one big pipe that connects these testbeds will be valuable to test all kinds of services for commercial applications. One example is the ability to carry uncompressed HDTV across the country," says Rod Alferness, chief technical officer of Lucent's Optical Networking Group.
Alferness says SuperNet is also important for its ability to test the scalability of the optical-network equipment and net management schemes installed in the individual testbeds.
Most SuperNet links will go online in the next six weeks. By November, researchers will be running high-speed applications on the testbed, Meada predicts.
Already operational are:
A 2.5G-bit/sec network connecting five sites in the Boston area, as well as a 2.5G-bit/sec line between Boston and Washington, D.C.
Two optical-ring networks in the Washington, D.C., area that link six government sites at speeds of 20G bit/sec.
A 10G-bit/sec link between Los Angeles and Oakland, Calif.
A 2.5G-bit/sec optical ring connecting four sites in the San Francisco Bay area.
The final step in the network will be a link from Washington, D.C, to Los Angeles -- with expected stops in Pittsburgh and Denver. That link should be up within a month, Meada says.