Internet2 prepares for the jump to light speed

The latest upgrade to the Internet2 research and education network will take its national backbone to a mind-boggling 8.8 terabits/sec.

About six or seven years ago, a couple of us in the GCN offices Photoshopped a picture of a co-worker who was sitting in front of a laptop PC with his hands outstretched and a starry look in his eyes. We gave him some kind of mystical headgear, a robe and had lightning bolts shooting from his fingertips to the laptop. In the faux caption for the faux picture, he marveled at the “5 terabits/sec” speed of his new “system,” which also gave him complete mind control over his co-workers, who were flanking him with spirals for eyes.

That’s about how absurd a data transmission rate of 5 terabits/ sec seemed at the time -- as far out of reach as mind control, like something only an all-powerful mythical Svengali, or maybe the Emperor from “Star Wars,” could manage.

But in a few months, Internet2’s optical backbone will be faster.


Related coverage:

Internet2 opens HOV lanes

NOAA to get high-capacity research network


The advanced research and education network, operated by a consortium of companies, universities and other groups, expects to upgrade its backbone network to 8.8 terabits/sec, according to a blog post by Chris Robb, Internet2’s director of operations and engineering.

Internet2 will use Ciena’s ActiveFlex 6500 platform to upgrade from its current capacity of 100 gigabits/sec to 8.8 terabits/sec, Robb writes, with 88 International Telecommunication Union Grid Dense Wavelength Division Multiplexing wavelengths, each running at 100 gigabits/sec.

The upgrade, funded by a $62 million grant from the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, supports the U.S. Unified Community Anchor Network project, according to an announcement from Ciena. U.S. UCAN connects more than 200,000 anchor institutions around the country, including schools, hospitals and libraries, and supports the growing demands of the research and higher education communities. 

Real though it may be, 8.8 terabits/sec can be hard to wrap your mind around. A terabit/sec is about 1,000 gigbits/sec, or 1 million megabits/sec. Most people at work or home are satisfied with 1.5 megabits/sec. Some people have more, but not that much more. Maybe 10 or 15 megabits/sec.

That’s a lot of data flowing through the pipes. Several estimates put all the printed volumes in the Library of Congress in transit at 10 terabits.

Carrier backbones have higher speeds, of course, usually about 10 gigbits/sec. Internet2, an advanced research network, mostly runs at about 20 gigbits/sec, with some paths at 30 or 40 gigbits/sec, Robb writes. However, he concludes, “this is somewhat inefficient from an optical spectrum standpoint.”

Not long ago, that would have seemed ridiculous, but at the moment he’s no doubt correct. The amount of data zipping around the Internet continues to grow exponentially, particularly on research networks, where data from efforts such as the Large Hadron Collider pump up the volume.

And it’s not going to change. One can only wonder how long before 8.8 terabits/sec is found to be “somewhat inefficient.”

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