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iCAIR Helping Create Smarter, Faster, Stronger Internet

Posted September 10, 2015

Nearing 50, the Internet is a technological artifact. Its best years may be ahead of it, though, thanks to Northwestern researchers.

Built to connect universities at a time when computers filled a room rather than a pocket, the Internet became more accessible with the advent of the World Wide Web in 1989 at CERN, the European particle physics lab in Switzerland. As the first scientists logged on, they were alone in exploring the platform and testing its limitations. Today, some 10 billion devices are connected, and by 2020 the number is expected to increase sevenfold, according to analysis by Morgan Stanley. The surge will come as connections are added to even more consumer electronics, household appliances, and everyday sensors.

Maintaining and migrating the Internet’s infrastructure to support that increase — at a time when data-rich transmissions are the norm — is one of the many collaborative projects spearheaded by Northwestern’s International Center for Advanced Internet Research (iCAIR).

Located on Northwestern’s Chicago campus, the center forms the hub for an international optical fiber grid, and it is home to experimentation and innovation across many advanced communication technologies. It’s also an integral part in a global consortium of corporations, academic institutions, and government agencies responsible for transmitting information for every big data science project. This includes experiments like those mapping the ocean’s floor, creating global weather forecasts, and taking place at synchrotrons around the world — including at the Advanced Proton Source at Argonne National Laboratory.

If the common Web is Lake Shore Drive, with cars/data shuttling around at modest speeds, iCAIR’s networks are launch pads, moving extremely large files with the power of a space shuttle liftoff.

“For more than 30 years, scientists have driven Internet innovation,” says Joe Mambretti, iCAIR director. “Advancing large-scale services continues to be a necessity for researchers working with big data. These researchers encounter technology challenges years before other communities. By resolving them, the improvements then migrate to the rest of the world.”

At iCAIR, the big data is often colossal. The Large Hadron Collider (LHC) in Switzerland, for example, can produce a petabyte of it every second — that’s a million gigabytes, or roughly 13 years of HD television content. Even though some of the LHC data is discarded, the volume of what remains would inundate a single facility. Using its powerful network interchanges, iCAIR and its international partners help manage the coordinated dispersal of the information among computational science centers worldwide.

Creating private networks for scientists is not a new idea. In the 1980s, a National Science Foundation project linking US supercomputers became the backbone for the modern Internet.

Today, those supercomputer connections comprise just one of the many networks flowing through the StarLight International/National Communications Exchange Facility at Northwestern. In fact, all of the world’s major high-performance national and international research and education (R&E) networks connect there, along with multiple local and regional R&E systems.

“Increasingly, the basic foundations of scientific research, theory, and experimentation, are being complemented by powerful new techniques in modeling and simulation based on big data,” Mambretti says.StarLight connects global research and academic networks to allow greater access to that data. It also enables the high-performance transport, management, and analysis of information. When the FermiNational Accelerator Laboratory built an optical link with StarLight a decade ago, doing so produced a 500 percent increase in the lab’s network connections to the planet’s science communities.

Numerous wide-ranging systems connect through StarLight, including: the Metropolitan Research and Education Network, a seven-state regional advanced network; the LHC Optical Private Network and the LHC Open Network Environment, two Department of Energy-funded networks connected to CERN for large-scale science; CANARIE, the national R&E network of Canada, which connects Chicago with all major Canadian universities and research institutions; ESnet, the national Energy Science Network; The National Institutes of Health network; Internet2, which connects universities and research laboratories throughout the United States; and many more.

“All of these networks come together in a dot on the map, and that is the StarLight facility,” says Mambretti.“In the early ’90s, with assistance from the university community, Chicago established an exchange that became the world’s largest by volume. iCAIR and StarLight continue to lead in that tradition.”

One of the ways StarLight makes immense data projects possible is by supporting 32 100-gigabyte-per-second (Gbps) paths.

That’s nearly 10 times more than any other facility. StarLight’s support of Blue Waters, the petascale supercomputer at the University of Illinois, includes four 100 GBPS channels. Along with capacity, network programmability is required to use these resources optimally. Recently, iCAIR received an NSF grant to create the world’s first Software Defined Networking Exchange (SDX) to provide enhanced support for workflows required for international data-intensive science.

For the Northwestern community, whose members have direct access to the 100 or so specialized networks at StarLight without necessitating any specialized paths, the benefits are invaluable.

Robert Chang, materials science and engineering and director of the Material Research Institute, has collaborated with Jim Chen, iCAIR associate director, for more than a decade.

“The center has played a critical role in my research by providing server space and aiding in the building of complex simulations at the nanoscale,” says Chang, who studies unconventional solar cell design and nano-structured carbon materials.
In fact, Chang’s projects have served as proof-of-concept demonstrations for iCAIR, showcasing the center’s capabilities to NSF.

Chang sees Northwestern’s achievements in this arena as having transformative potential for years to come. “The massive computational needs in predicting the properties of a new material mean that iCAIR’s partnerships in cloud computing act like a bridge to the future.”


iCAIR’s StarLight facility is a global proving ground for high- performance applications by providing the capabilities to conduct research and experimentation with the most advanced networks. StarLight is developed and managed by iCAIR, the California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology at the University of California San Diego, the Electronic Visualization Laboratory at the University of Illinois at Chicago, and the Mathematics and Computer Science Division at Argonne National Laboratory, in partnership with Canada’s CANARIE and the Netherlands’ SURFnet, the national R&E network of the Netherlands.

Cloud Computing

Cloud services have become ubiquitous, transforming how the world works, communicates, and learns. However, cloud technologies hold still far greater potential. A persistent barrier to advancement has been the lack of a large-scale experimental cloud research platform. The new Chameleon testbed, a collaborative effort in which iCAIR is a leading participant, was funded in 2014 with $10 million from the NSF. The project’s goal is to help computer scientists develop novel cloud architectures and applications.

Radio telescopes

StarLight also links radio telescopes throughout the world to allow for real-time data correlation. One connection implemented by iCAIR connects the huge radio telescope at Puerto Rico’s Arecibo Observatory with researchers in Europe.


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