Terri-Jane Yuzda

Group Creates an Information Autobohn

The regular Internet is a country lane in comparison to NeteraNet, a data exchange system that’s winning over the research community.

Freelance Writer

String eight ribbons of asphalt between Edmonton and Calgary, limit their traffic to semi-trailers zipping along at 200 kilometres per hour, and see what kind of reaction you receive. It’s a route that would, of course, attract plenty of public attention.

Yet when it comes to a comparable, dedicated information highway, most Albertans remain oblivious. Rest assured, this electronic autobahn does exist. Called NeteraNet, it’s an ultra-high-capacity, fibre-optic network, and numerous Alberta scientists, APEGGA members among them, use it regularly and appreciate its value.

NeteraNet uses optical switching and networking technology to provide a backbone that connects researchers in different parts of the province. This backbone links the advanced, WestGrid supercomputers at the universities of Alberta and Calgary.

From there, links extend to parallel high-performance networks. These linked networks are found elsewhere in Western Canada, but also in other Canadian regions, through CANARIE’s CA*net and in 42 other countries.

How Much Capacity?
While local cable lines may have a bandwidth of one megabit per second, NeteraNet provides 1,000 times that (one gigabit per second) and speeds of up to four gigabits along the main backbone. Indeed, NeteraNet’s bandwidth, dedicated lightpaths and specialized routing make the regular Internet seem like a quaint country lane.

One more roadway metaphor rounds out Alberta’s cyberscape. In addition to NeteraNet is the similarly named SuperNet, a current Alberta initiative expected to be complete in the next few years with provincial government support.

Think of SuperNet as an upgrade of the secondary road network and, in that sense, a complement to NeteraNet. SuperNet will bring improved conventional Internet services to 4,700 institutions, among them schools, hospitals, libraries and government offices. These are in small communities, ones without access to the kind of high-speed commercial Internet service that larger centres enjoy.

It’s About Speed
Indeed, high speed is what everyone wants when it comes to the electronic exchange of information. And therefore speed is the lifeblood of high-capacity networks, says Gary Finley, NeteraNet’s director of advanced networking.

The enormous quantities of data handled in some research, including collaborative international projects, simply overburden commercial networks or move through them at painfully slow speeds.

Enter NeteraNet. Improvements in the network play a critical role in ensuring Alberta stays on the right side of the international digital divide that separates the IT haves and have-nots, Mr. Finley says.

“ If NeteraNet or CANARIE weren’t there, it is questionable whether some academics would come here. They would be discouraged professionally and go somewhere else,” says Mr. Finley, who himself gravitated toward computers and networking after launching his career in astrophysics.

In fact it is organizations that share a commitment to improving Alberta’s advanced information infrastructure – through video serving, videoconferencing, networked visualization and high-speed networking – that operate NeteraNet. This not-for-profit consortium of universities, research institutions, government and private-sector companies such as TRLabs and YottaYotta, is known as the NeteraNet Alliance.

NeteraNet traces its origins, however, to an earlier time in the Internet age: 1993, and the formation of the Western Universities Research Consortium for High Performance Computing (WurcNet). This consortium was set up to develop high-speed Internet and computing capabilities in Alberta.

With federal and provincial support, what was known as Wnet and in 2000 became NeteraNet has undergone repeated upgrading, most recently last year.

The Cyberspace Lab
These upgrades allowed NeteraNet to handle huge data flows, but it has another purpose, too. NeteraNet serves as a kind of cyber-lab for investigators researching the actual networks, or searching out new and innovative applications for the next generation of the Internet.

Testing new approaches can require the placing of Under Construction signs, which would prove disruptive on the commercial Internet. At the most, Alberta probably has a few dozen such network investigators.

Still, this is no experimental tool. NeteraNet’s Mr. Finley explains that most of the advanced research network’s users ? there are hundreds of them, in engineering, medicine, geophysics and other fields ? look at the link as a conduit to help them in their research.

What the Users Say
Users include Dr. Raj Rangayyan, P.Eng., a University of Calgary professor of electrical and computer engineering who’s recognized internationally for developing computer-aided methods to diagnose breast cancer. NeteraNet’s capability of handling massive data volumes is about to be used to further improve such diagnostic procedures.

Radiologists will be able to send mammograms electronically to a location, say Calgary, where, by employing methods developed by Dr. Rangayyan, the data will be scanned and compared to an indexed “atlas” of existing mammograms. This electronic sifting is not unlike the process police use to match a given fingerprint to tens of thousands held on a database.

Once, say, 10 similar mammograms are selected, they can be sent back to the originating radiologist, along with the prognosis and treatment employed in each case. Via other advanced research networks linking Western Canadian universities, such as UBC and Simon Fraser, it’s possible to gather even more examples.
To date, transmitting such sizeable files (60 megabytes for one mammogram) through the regular Internet has been difficult, if not impossible. “Sending hundreds of megabytes would take too long on the ordinary network,” explains Dr. Rangayyan.

Another U of C faculty member who foresees benefits from high-performance networks, such as NeteraNet, is Associate Professor of Geomatics Engineering Dr. Yang Gao, P.Eng. An expert in satellite-based positioning, mobile information management and geographic information systems, Dr. Gao also faces transferring megabyte-sized images, beyond the capacity of normal Internet servers.

To compensate and to speed up transmission, some “non-essential” data are extracted from images at the transmitting end. This is very much a half measure, which delivers to recipients less-than-complete information and limits the potential for applications.

“If the network capacity improves, we can minimize such effects,” says Dr. Gao.

While they can be the vehicle for quicker delivery of images now, ultra-high-capacity fibre networks can also serve as the proving ground for applications that will allow large amounts of GPS/GIS material to be relayed via wireless and mobile devices.

Yet another researcher benefiting from NeteraNet's speed and capacity is Dr. Suzanne Kresta, P.Eng., a professor in the University of Alberta’s Department of Chemical and Materials Engineering. An expert in turbulent mixing, Dr. Kresta runs large, computer-based fluid dynamics simulations, which require the computing capacity of the kind available on the supercomputers at Alberta’s two largest universities.

The value of NeteraNet comes in linking these supercomputers. Dr. Kresta can log on at the U of A, but if it happens that the U of C supercomputer is available, her data may well speed down the electronic “road” to Calgary for the number-crunching.

“ Because of the link we have between the two campuses, it doubles the computer power that we have. Having the parallel system reduces down time,” says the U of A researcher, a user of the high-speed network for about four years.

Still, Dr. Kresta acknowledges, “We’re only just beginning to see its possibilities.”

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