Next-generation vBNS gets three-year extension

Next-generation vBNS gets three-year extension

By William Jackson

GCN Staff

The National Science Foundation has agreed to a three-year extension of the very-high-performance Backbone Network Service, a next-generation link connecting universities and research centers at rates up to 2.4 Gbps.

Built by MCI WorldCom Inc. with government assistance, vBNS will run for at least three more years at no cost to the government. Also, NSF will largely end its subsidies for university connections, turning its attention'and funds'to other high-performance networking programs.

'We've got the track laid, now we want to start running trains,' said George Strawn, executive officer of NSF's Computational and Information Sciences and Engineering Division.

VBNS, one of two backbones serving the government's Internet 2 program, consists of two parallel networks. One runs at 622 Mbps using IP Version 6, the next-generation Internet Protocol, and the other uses the current IP Version 4 with multiprotocol label switching to reach the 2.4-Gbps OC-48 rate. Both networks have a fiber Synchronous Optical Network infrastructure.

The name vBNS does not refer to a physical infrastructure owned by MCI WorldCom, said Charles Lee, vBNS program manager for the company. 'It's a set of services, not a network,' he said. The infrastructure is part of MCI WorldCom's asset base, of which some data services are reserved for vBNS.

NSF contributed $10 million per year from 1995 through March to help develop vBNS'an amount Lee called 'a drop in the bucket.'

'Cooperative agreement is government-speak for 'We're going to give you a little money, and you're going to spend a lot,' ' he said.

VBNS originally connected five NSF-supported supercomputing centers at 155 Mbps for distributed computing experiments. In the spring of 1996, universities were allowed to join because of the growing congestion on the Internet.

'The newly commercialized backbone [of the Net] almost went to its knees,' Strawn said.

About the same time, the University Corp. for Advanced Internet Development began to develop the high-performance Abilene network, the second Internet 2 backbone.

NSF gave matching two-year grants of about $350,000 each to 170 institutions that wanted to connect to vBNS or Abilene. The grants were not intended as permanent subsidies, Strawn said. NSF expected each grant to cover half of an institution's connection costs for two years. NSF last year awarded the last round of grants.

'We mortgaged the future to connect as many high-performance centers as we did,' Strawn said. 'It will take through the end of this year to finish paying off all our awards.'

In the meantime, NSF is looking at ideas for new Internet 2 programs to begin in the next fiscal year. No programs have been selected, but Strawn identified directions they likely will take:

• Promoting rapid development of advanced scientific and engineering applications

• Developing network operating system middleware that would put intelligence in a network and make it as user-friendly as a desktop computer

• Continuing support of connections to advanced networks where appropriate

• Considering what the next-generation networks after Internet 2 will look like.

Lee said vBNS has made two big contributions: furnishing a test bed for IPv6 and for IP multicast technologies. Moving to IPv6 is a necessity for Internet 2 because the explosion of Internet devices has outstripped the number of addresses available under IPv4.

High-definition IP multicasting looks promising for widespread, on-demand commercial distribution, but it will require massive hardware changes. 'It's a task no one is ready to step up to today,' Lee said.

Despite the cost of running vBNS, Lee said, MCI WorldCom already is beginning to realize benefits through vBNS+, a commercial version of the research network.

Strawn added, 'VBNS looks like it's going to be another chance to commercialize technology that has been developed with the government.'

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