Labs sport collaborative look

Scientists who move into new National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
laboratories in Boulder, Colo., will find a state-of-the-art asynchronous transfer mode
network waiting for them.


“Modern research lives or dies by its network and communications
capabilities,” said Britt Bassett, network manager for NOAA’s Boulder labs.
“There’s a lot of collaborative research going on here that has been
hindered” by inadequate network links between buildings scattered across the area.


The new network has a dual 622-Mbps OC-12 meshed backbone built around ForeRunner
switches from Fore Systems Inc. of Pittsburgh and is scalable to meet almost any
foreseeable needs.


Bassett said he had two options in designing the network: to model what will be needed,
“which I think is foolish,” he said, or get as much as you can afford,
“which is what we did.”


Ron McKenzie, Fore’s vice president of strategic marketing, said NOAA made an
exacting evaluation of its network needs and what various vendors could offer. He said
Fore’s ability to support distributed network management was the deciding factor.


“We have 11 agencies moving in, and six of them are pretty independent,”
Bassett said. “They wouldn’t move in with us unless they could manage their own
parts of the network.”


The NOAA facility will be ready for occupation by late next month and will house six of
the 12 units that make up NOAA’s Environment Research Laboratories. They are the
Aeronomy Laboratory, Climate Diagnostics Center, Environmental Technology Laboratory,
Forecast Systems Laboratory, Space Environment Center and the Air Resources
Laboratory’s Surface Radiation Research Branch. Other tenants are the National
Geophysical Data Center, a National Weather Service forecast office and the Mountain
Administrative Support Center.


In all, the network will serve 1,100 people in 698 offices and 98 labs.


The old network was a hodgepodge of fiber-optic, 10Base-2 and 10Base-5 cable carrying a
mix of ATM, IP and Ethernet traffic, Bassett said. Moving to a new facility with its own
network presented an opportunity to redesign from the ground up.


“We started about five years ago to get adequate funding to do a more than an
adequate job,” he said. To ensure the latest technology, Bassett managed to put off
making decisions about the network hardware until June 1998.


“I used the key words ‘technology refresh’ and was able to separate the
cable plant from the network equipment” to delay the ultimate buying decision, he
said.


The cable infrastructure is all fiber optic on the backbone with a star configuration,
a central distribution facility, 21 intermediate distribution facilities and six computer
rooms.


The hardware, bought through the National Institutes of Health’s Electronic
Computer Store, includes ForeRunner ASX-1000 backbone switches in the intermediate
distribution facilities linked to ES-3810 LAN switches for desktop connections via 10-Mbps
Ethernet or 100-Mbps switched Fast Ethernet.


“This is very leading-edge,” McKenzie said. Many commercial enterprises
demand as much scalability, he said. But few require the same degree of real-time updates
as the NWS forecast office and the Space Environment Center, which feeds data to NASA for
space shuttle missions.


“In this instance, the government is leading the commercial sector,” McKenzie
said.


The switching layer can do load balancing across multiple links and can take advantage
of increased backbone capacity without replacing any hardware. It also allows management
of separate subnets.


A dozen ATM-connected Web servers will deliver more than 200G of data per day to
researchers over an intranet and to the public over the Internet. Consolidating servers in
one location with ATM connections will give high-speed performance without replicating
data, McKenzie said. The servers can be logically partitioned for different subnets.


The lab users will move in with their old systems and old network interface cards. Most
users will still have Ethernet or Fast Ethernet. But Bassett expects the labs to migrate
to ATM from the desktop.


“We’re putting some candy on the network to attract people to do
things,” he said. Incentives include, for example, video on the ATM backbone.

About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.

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