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 VOL. 23, NO. 23MAY 20, 1998 

Columbia to Connect to New High-Speed Network


Columbia has been awarded a $350,000 National Science Foundation grant to connect to the nation’s premiere high-speed computer network, and users should notice the difference by next fall.

  The network, called the Very High Performance Backbone Network Service, or vBNS, will give students, faculty and administrators much faster electronic access to nearly 100 institutions within the group. Scientists will benefit by gaining a large-bandwidth channel that will permit, for example, sharing large data sets or transmitting lectures and conferences with speed and clarity.

  Columbia’s Internet speed to the other institutions will increase from 45 megabits per second (Mbps) to 155 Mbps, once the connection is completed by late summer, said Vace Kundakci, deputy vice president of Academic Information Systems (AcIS) at Columbia.

  “We probably will not notice any increase in e-mail speed, but web pages from other institutions on the vBNS will load much faster,” Kundakci said.

  The new connection will also give researchers the ability to guarantee a certain transmission speed and quality, not possible on the current Internet; such guarantees are known collectively as “quality of service.”

  While such high connection speeds to the Internet are still rare, Kundakci said, they will be common on the commercial Internet in the next two to three years.

  Columbia and the other institutions are researching how to build and manage advanced networks that will handle voice, video and data at the same time in preparation for their widespread use.

  The vBNS uses a switching technology known as Asynchronous Transfer Mode (ATM) that routes information in densely packed bursts. Columbia has its own ATM network that connects the Morningside campus, the Health Sciences Division and Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory.

  That network, which has been used to transmit Health Sciences classes to Morningside bioengineering students, runs at 45 Mbps and will be compatible with vBNS, Kundakci said, but other campus Internet connections will have to be upgraded.

  The NSF announced in February that 29 institutions, among them Columbia, had been approved for connection grants of $350,000 apiece over two years to join the vBNS, which is sponsored by NSF but operated by MCI Communications Corp.

  The high-speed network, which has also been selected as the backbone for the Internet-2 under development, will be available only to research institutions and will not be used for commercial Internet traffic.

  The science foundation’s goal is to build a new backbone network for a new generation of the Internet that will be 100 to 1,000 times faster than today’s network. With an expected bandwidth of up to 2.2 gigabits per second by 2000, scientists at locations far from NSF and other supercomputing centers will be able to use those centers to create mathematical models of real-life situations, such as hurricanes, bridge stresses, atomic nuclei and heart attacks, and run programs that predict changes in such events. Other applications include making large sets of data available to many institutions and putting digital libraries on line.

  The latest round of NSF announcements brings the number of connected institutions to 92; the NSF has said it hopes to connect 150 in all.

  But the foundation won’t be able to add more institutions until it resolves a lawsuit over its $23 million budget for vBNS connections, since the money was collected from Internet domain name registrations—such as columbia.edu—that some companies claim is an unauthorized tax.

  On Feb. 2, a Federal judge issued an injunction prohibiting the NSF from spending the money as the case proceeds. Money for the new round of connection grants will come from other parts of the NSF budget, an agency spokesman said.

  Columbia’s application to join the vBNS was a joint application with seven other universities in New York state under the umbrella of NYSERNet, the state’s Internet backbone. Cornell and N.Y.U. were also approved to join.

  In 1995, the NSF retired the NSFNet backbone network service, which had been the principal network joining the pieces of the Internet, and turned Internet management over to private telecommunications companies.

  At the same time, it authorized MCI to provide links among major research universities and the science foundation’s supercomputing centers, the network that will become the vBNS. Internet-2, a consortium of 120 universities joined to build a next-generation Internet dedicated solely to research and education, has selected the vBNS as its primary telecommunications network. Columbia is a charter member of Internet-2.