BY NORDAHL FLAKSTAD
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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.”