Feature

An environment of abundance

CERN data centre.jpg

The origin story of today’s infrastructure lies in the high-speed, high-capacity networks used in academic and scientific research. Alan Burkitt-Gray talks to the people behind two providers of these: Géant in Europe and Internet2 in the US

Major investments are now underway in what most people regard as the foundation of the internet: research and academic networks.

During the last six months, Rob Vietzke, vice-president of network services, has upgraded Internet2’s backbone in North America to 400Gbps.

“We need a lot of headroom,” says Vietzke. “When we get to 40% utilisation we’ll add capacity, whereas a commercial operator would go closer to 90%.”

In Europe, Exa Infrastructure has upgraded the Géant academic network and its links to the US via transatlantic cables. “The backbone is typically 500Gbps,” says Bram Peeters, Géant’s chief network operations officer.

In March, AARNet, Australia’s national research and education network, and other research networks decided to extend the life of the Asia-Pacific-Europe Ring (AER) after a three-year trial. And there are also Red Clara in Latin America, and Africa Connect and Ubuntu Net in the African continent.

Driven by clouds

The cloud is driving Internet2 to provide services that cater to the huge data flows scientists need, “the ability to cut the time to science or the time to the result,” as Vietzke describes it.

Peeters says CERN near Geneva, home of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), is a classic example: “You get really large data sets, three weeks of streaming, and then a year of nothing.”

After a three-year break due to upgrades and the pandemic, experiments with the LHC were set to restart on 11 April. And when they do, the data will start streaming.

“A sizeable chunk will be on Exa’s infrastructure,” says Peeters. “It’s not consumer-level traffic. It has a research capability.”

Other sources of massive data sets are space observatories in Chile, which route information to the Netherlands, and an experimental fusion reactor in the south of France.

“This is large, high-performance computing,” says Peeters. Some of this work is done in Finland, where energy for data centres is cheap, and, like a commercial provider, Géant connects to cloud services, such as Amazon Web Services (AWS), Microsoft and Oracle.

It is worth remembering that the internet started as a collection of networks used by scientists and researchers. It was computer scientists in the US and Europe who developed packet switching and saw its potential for building resilient networks that could link existing networks and networks of networks.

One of the oldest ancestors of the internet is Arpanet, the network of Darpa, the US Department of Defense’s Advanced Research Projects Agency. But there were others across the world, and ideas for a global digital network, largely for academic use, date back to the early 1960s.

Decades later, Internet2, Géant (which serves 50 million users in more than 10,000 institutions in Europe from its headquarters in Amsterdam and Cambridge), and other research network providers are continuing this legacy. Their work will set much of the agenda for the commercial networks of the future.

Peering around the world

Vietzke says Internet2 has 15,000 miles of dark fibre and connects 43 state and regional networks, in addition to “more than 100 other networks that we peer with around the world”.

Within the US, Internet2 connects universities, government agencies, industry partners, and regional and state education networks. It also supports more than 100,000 community institutions, including schools, colleges, public libraries, museums and healthcare facilities.

Some commercial networks can trace their origins to the early academic networks. Back in the late 1980s, many users of commercial networks who were in the worlds of academia or research got the idea of data communications and email before the rest of us – even those who should have seen the future.

Five years after Tim Berners-Lee put ideas for the World Wide Web on paper in 1990, Microsoft questioned the need to include an internet browser in Windows 95.

Many of those early adopters of research networks at first resented the commercialisation of what they saw as their private virtual universe. But today – as shown by the collaboration of Géant and Exa Infrastructure – they work closely together.

Our origin story

Vietzke calls those early networks “our origin story”.

“Some [of those pioneer networks] became commercial,” he says.

Internet2 was founded when the US government began divesting itself of the early services: “We wanted to make sure there was a testbed. Internet2 was founded for the US.”

Today it provides cloud services to the research community across the country, and federated trust and identity management services. This means a researcher can log in from another system and Internet2 will check their identity and access permission, “and whether the person still works there”.

Identity services are also part of Géant’s offering to the European research community. “Someone from a Swedish university can use a connection in Spain,” says Peeters.

Speed to provision is one of the factors that distinguishes Internet2 from commercial services, says Vietzke. “A researcher might want a cloud connection at short notice, that’s why the trust in identity is so important.”

And due to Internet2’s policy of never letting usage exceed 40% of what is available, “we don’t have to do a capacity check” before letting a user on. “We have an environment of abundance.”

Internet2 is built from commercial products, says Vietzke. “We buy dark fibre and routers and put the network together.” Sometimes it becomes an anchor tenant on new subsea routes and, on the whole, it looks towards making long-term investments in services. “We’re a good partner to be an anchor tenant.”

What Vietzke is unwilling to talk about is Internet2’s annual spend. All Vietzke will say is that, “spend is not a good metric.”

The most you will get on the topic from the internet2.edu website is this statement: “Internet2, as a 501(c)3 not-for-profit corporation, organized under the laws of the District of Columbia, generates revenues for the purpose of executing the mission of the organization.”

Also, while Internet2 has a board of trustees, elected by member organisations, it does not publish accounts or minutes.

European fibre upgrade

In Europe, Géant is a collaboration between national research and education networks (NRENs) and the European Union, although it is not limited to the EU’s 27 member states.

There are some numbers available regarding Géant. Its latest upgrade – GN4-3N – which will build new fibre right across Europe, from Spain and Portugal eastwards, is costed at €63.1 million.

Late in 2021 four key routes were completed, connecting Amsterdam, Frankfurt, Geneva and London. Earlier in 2021, new routes were added connecting Bilbao, Lisbon, Madrid, Paris and Porto. Much of the network is on dedicated fibre, and other parts are wavelengths on fibre.

In Europe, Géant “is different in scale” from other users, says Ciarán Delaney, chief operating officer of Exa Infrastructure. He began in the Dublin area 15 years ago with Hibernia Networks, stayed after it was bought by GTT, where he became vice-president of operations, and continued, still in Dublin, as GTT spun out its infrastructure division last year in a sale to I Squared Capital (ISQ), a US-based private equity investor.

“When we talk about education and research this is the partnership we talk about,” says Delaney. “We like to be easy to do business with, but the technology team at Géant are an equal match. They are a very sophisticated network team.”

Géant has used Exa and its predecessors for about 10 years. “It’s a very symbiotic relationship and its not the typical customer-vendor situation,” says Delaney.

Exa’s network stretches from Chicago in the west to Istanbul in the east. “That allows us to deliver quickly,” explains Delaney.

“We have the ability to offer a level of service, with reliability, redundancy and availability. Availability is key. We offer five-nines performance.” That means 99.999% availability – a downtime of no more than five minutes and 15 seconds a year.

Research networks are not going away. Just as streaming is driving up use of commercial networks, big science projects are pushing up scientific demand. Fusion and subatomic physics, drug design, and the Artemis programme to land people on the Moon by 2025, all mean the world of research will need more and more data services.

“Demand is growing 40% to 50% a year,” says one person close to the business. It’s not going to stop now.

And with such a globally interconnected network, does politics intervene? “We support the free flow of information,” says Vietzke. “For a long time, academics and scientists have collaborated regardless of what their governments are doing.”

But Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February brought a change of attitude to Géant. At the organisation’s general assembly in late March the executive director of the Ukrainian Research and Academic Network (URAN), Yevhenii Preobrazhenskyi, thanked the Géant board for de-peering from the Kurchatov Institute of Atomic Energy in Moscow. “Neutrality of science in times of war is a delusion,” said Preobrazhenskyi.

Géant also connects Basnet, the research network of Belarus, a Russian ally in the war. Because of sanctions against Russia and Belarus, Basnet can no longer be a partner in Géant’s upgrade project, but it has said it will carry the full costs of upgrading its part of the network.

The Géant Association said Basnet’s membership was not up for debate. When peace comes, the international science community will still be there.

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