Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Internationally acclaimed violinist and conductor Pinchas Zukerman doesn't let a little thing like a few thousand miles stand in the way of reaching his students.
Using high-definition videoconferencing technology available through the Internet2 network, he can give individual instruction to students half a world away with CD-quality sound and DVD-like images.
Zukerman accesses the network as part of a program at the Manhattan School of Music. The school, an affiliate member of Internet2 through a relationship with Columbia University, has been using the network to do videoconferencing since 1999.
"I'll be the first to say that videoconferencing, even the high-quality technology available through Internet2, will never replace the live experience of teaching music," said Christianne Orto, director of recording and distance learning for the Manhattan School of Music. "But it has tremendously enhanced and revolutionized our ability to teach from a distance at a high level."
Before Internet2, teaching music via videoconferencing was almost impossible. The Manhattan School of Music, a pioneer in distance learning via videoconferencing, has used ISDN (Integrated Services Digital Network) technology since 1996. But the inherent limitations of the technology have been a constant challenge.
Elements that are critical for music performance education—sound, rhythm and timing, visual imagery, movement—are almost always compromised within this environment, Orto said.
But now, with the high-bandwidth, low-latency Internet2 network, programs like this are commonplace not just at the Manhattan School of Music but at universities and music conservatories around the world. Today, researchers are looking at ways to extend collaborative learning even further over Internet2's backbone, called Abilene. Applications for and remote astronomy also are being developed to take advantage of the network.
Internet2 was of universities and technology companies in 1996 to provide vast improvements in connection speeds. The goal of the project has always been to stay three to four years ahead of what is commercially available through the public Internet. The network itself is in its third generation of design. Earlier this year, the backbone was upgraded to 10gbps (gigabits per second).
Most of the public Internet today uses 2.5gbps links, but some carriers are upgrading those links to 10gbps.
More than 227 universities, libraries, public schools and research institutions are connected to Internet2. The network connects to more than 57 international high-capacity networks. It provides a test bed for new technologies such as IP version 6.
Peer-to-peer applications, high-definition videoconferencing, remote manipulation of lab equipment, and distributed computing are all applications that are enabled by Internet2. Entrepreneurial students at some universities are using a peer-to-peer application to buy and sell used textbooks over the network.
Musical Webcasts over the Internet can transfer up to 250 megabytes of data per second over Internet2. This is more than 4,000 times the rate of a standard dial-up modem and more than 800 times that of a cable modem.
Large businesses may have access to high-bandwidth connections, but carriers such as Qwest Communications, which provides the backbone infrastructure for Internet2, say they haven't seen much demand. Qwest is just starting to develop service products based on its work with Internet2.
"The road map is still in its early stages," said Amy Dietrich, a spokeswoman for Qwest. "There's been huge demand from education users on Abilene, but we haven't seen the same kind of demand on the commercial side."
Corbato said carriers still need to figure out how to make money from services sold over an Internet2-like network. The financial models for Internet2 and the regular Internet are completely different, he explained.
While commercial carriers charge by the bit, Internet2 charges members and affiliate organizations a flat yearly fee for all-you-can-use bandwidth. Members pay roughly $27,000 for the year, and affiliates pay $12,000. While commercial carriers try to control how much bandwidth customers use, Internet2 encourages explosive and extensive use of the network, he said.
"It's important for Internet2 for universities to use as much of the network as possible so that we promote as much experimentation as possible," he said.
But as more college graduates who use applications running over Internet2 enter the work force, demand should grow within the corporate community. E-mail evolved in a similar way. Early on, e-mail was used only between university campuses. Most of the e-mail networks in the early 1990s did not communicate with each other. But eventually, the technology was opened up, and it became possible to send e-mail anywhere in the world. Now it's become an integral part of the modern workplace.
The next step
Researchers are still looking for ways to improve the efficiency and speed of Internet2. Since 2000, Internet2 has sponsored an over its backbone to see which research teams can build the fastest IP routing configuration.
Researchers also are working on new middleware technology that can be used to make collaboration over the network more seamless and secure. Middleware is the software glue that binds the network to applications. This software provides services such as identification, authentication, authorization, directories and security.
In today's Internet, applications usually have to provide these services themselves, which leads to competing and incompatible standards. By promoting standardization and interoperability, middleware will make advanced network applications much easier to use.
The Internet2 Middleware Initiative (I2-MI) is working toward the use of core middleware services at Internet2 universities. Shibboleth is one of these initiatives. It is working on establishing single-sign-on technologies and other ways to authenticate users across the network. Version 1.2 of the software is now available for use.
"There are a lot of issues that come up when people try to port applications to different networks," said Vijay Kumar, director of academic computing at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "There's authority and identity issues that come up. A lot of the initial work has been done here, but it now needs to move into the mainstream."
Eye on the future
For the past 15 years, the Internet has doubled about once a year, Corbato said. Researchers believe this trend of 100 percent growth per year will continue in the future. As a result, Internet2 researchers are already looking at the next generation of superfast networking.
"The 10gbps Abilene network is running on average at about 1gbps to 2gbps right now," Corbato said. "In higher education, we tend to think in terms of exponential growth. So it's not far-fetched to think that demand for new applications will eventually outstrip the capacity of the common IP network."
Internet2 researchers are designing a hybrid network that uses both IP packet switching and dynamically provisioned optical light paths, or "lambdas." They're doing this through a partnership with the National LambdaRail, a consortium of universities, research institutions and private industry that is buying long stretches of excess fiber-optic capacity from carriers. The project, called HOPI, or hybrid optical and packet infrastructure, will use wide-area lambdas with IP routers and lambda switches capable of high capacity and dynamic provisioning.
A HOPI design team is in the planning stages of building a test-bed that uses resources from Internet2's nationwide backbone, regional optical networks and the National LambdaRail. The benefit of using fiber from National LambdaRail is that researchers can experiment with designs for the next-generation Internet without disturbing production traffic on the traditional Internet2 backbone.
"We recognized at the halfway point in building the second generation of Abilene that we needed a high-performance network that combined IP routing and optical switching," Corbato said. "We'll continue to innovate on Internet2, and we will tie these technologies together. What we don't want to wind up with is two incompatible networks like the old telephone network and the Internet. So we need to make sure the packet and optical circuit networks are compatible from the outset."